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University of Alabama Press
Ancient Chiefdoms of the Tombigbee / Edition 1

Ancient Chiefdoms of the Tombigbee / Edition 1

by John H. Blitz
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817306724
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 03/28/1993
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

John H. Blitz (Ph.D., City University of New York, 1991) is Associate Professor of Anthropology, Department of Anthropology, University of Alabama.

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Ancient Chiefdoms of the Tombigbee

By John H. Blitz

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1993 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-0672-4



We are concerned here with an interpretation of the material remains of prehistoric farmers who once inhabited the central Tombigbee River valley in what is now Alabama and Mississippi. For much of the 1970s a dedicated team of archaeologists and students, supported by universities and federal agencies, labored to retrieve information about these ancient societies before their dwelling places were destroyed by a lock-and-dam system. The product of these efforts was an enormous data base with which to generate a rich, elaborate cultural history of 10,000 years of Native American life.

In the following pages I focus on one part of this time span, from around A.D. 900 until the early sixteenth century, an interval during which the Tombigbee societies reached their zenith of cultural complexity. In doing so, I hope to reveal something of what life for members of these societies was like, their material conditions, their social circumstances, and some of the problems they confronted and solved. From this perspective the Tombigbee societies can be related to a broad cultural development that accompanied the advent of intensive maize cultivation in the Eastern Woodlands, a development collectively referred to by archaeologists as the Mississippian. I have attempted to isolate some of those factors that operated within Tombigbee societies that promoted the unfolding of the Mississippian way of life and to illustrate how similar or different these factors were in relation to other Mississippian societies in the Southeast.

At another analytical level, Mississippian societies can be placed within general categories of sociocultural complexity in the evolution of human societies. With this orientation, understanding the rise and decline of Mississippian societies along the Tombigbee River may provide insights into processes of cultural change, and specifically the development and maintenance of chiefdoms and social hierarchies. Over the last twenty years Mississippian societies have come to be regarded as chiefdoms, or ranked societies. The former label refers to a type of sociopolitical organization characterized by "an autonomous political unit comprising a number of villages or communities under the permanent control of a paramount chief" (Carneiro 1981:45), while the latter term pertains more to the structure of social relations. As Fried (1967:109–110) puts it, a ranked society has "fewer positions of valued status than individuals capable of handling them."

My objective here is not to fit the prehistoric Tombigbee communities into an evolutionary pigeonhole or to propound lawlike principles. Because evolutionary categories, such as chiefdom, encompass a wide range of human societies, I have tried to identify a number of variables that would reveal, however incompletely, the basis for leadership, the degree of social ranking, and aspects of resource control that characterized the Tombigbee communities. Archaeologists must above all document the actual course of human prehistory, and it is from case studies firmly rooted within specific cultural-historical contexts, such as I hope to present here, that the broader mechanisms and regularities of cultural evolution may be placed in proper perspective.

Southeastern historical and archaeological research reveals that Mississippian societies varied considerably in size and social complexity. However, current archaeological interpretations of Mississippian social and economic systems are most developed for settlement systems with large, multiple-mound centers, such as Moundville, Alabama. These systems are considered complex chiefdoms; and archaeological correlates of ranked social organization, craft specialization, and differential access to resources have been proposed. In contrast, less attention has been devoted to the widespread settlement systems that consist of a single-mound local center and surrounding farmsteads. One such system is found at Lubbub Creek, 53 km west of Moundville. Lubbub Creek does not represent a microcosm of the social order claimed for Moundville, and its location on Moundville's periphery raises interesting questions about the developmental relationships between small-scale and large-scale Mississippian polities.

In Chapter 2 I discuss organizational variability in native southeastern societies as revealed by historical and archaeological research. A positive correlation between polity size, degree of social ranking, and resource control can be tied to cycles of development and fragmentation of chiefdoms. Models of Mississippian social organization and political economy, developed from research at Moundville, are examined.

In Chapter 3 the late prehistory of the study area is discussed. Chronological, economic, social, and developmental factors are interpreted. Excavations at Lubbub Creek and four farmstead sites are summarized.

The excavation of the earthen platform mound at Lubbub Creek is presented in Chapter 4, and evidence for a developmental relationship among feasting, group ritual, and the emergence of sanctified authority is evaluated.

In Chapter 5 social and economic conditions that led to the establishment of the local-center–farmstead settlement system — and how these conditions shaped the emergence of formal positions of leadership at Lubbub Creek — are investigated. Aspects of site seasonality, site permanence, and subsistence activities are examined with data from the Tombigbee farmsteads, and evidence of farmstead–local-center interdependence is evaluated. I focus my interpretations on how the logistics of maize production, defense, and storage created two potential sources of political influence: (1) management of pooled food surpluses through appeals to sanctified authority; and (2) leadership in war.

The question of preferential access to valued craft items is addressed in Chapter 6 through the examination of fineware ceramic distributions in the Lubbub Creek community.

In Chapter 7, expectations about access and control of resources derived from studies of Moundville and other large-scale Mississippian societies are explored through a comparison of farmstead–local-center distributions of prestige goods, evidence of craft production, and other artifact categories. The effect of regional exchange/alliance networks on the development of small-scale Mississippian societies is explored through the comparison of nonlocal artifact frequencies in Tombigbee and Moundville burials.

I conclude Chapter 8 with a summary of social, economic, and political characteristics of the farmstead–local-center unit and place this interpretation within a specific regional as well as general theoretical context.

There is general agreement that late Mississippian populations in the southeastern United States were organized as ranked societies, or chiefdoms. Chiefdoms are of great anthropological importance because it is in this kind of society that social hierarchies were first institutionalized. Yet much remains to be learned about how chiefdoms form and about the basis of social ranking. Worldwide, pristine chiefdom societies can no longer be observed directly by social scientists, and while short-term historical accounts are available, only archaeological studies have the necessary chronological perspective to fully illuminate these questions.

Archaeologists are increasingly aware that Mississippian societies were characterized by considerable organizational variability. Both large and small population clusters existed, but there has been little comparative study to determine how sociopolitical and economic organization varies with polity size. Understanding the relationship among polity size, degree of social ranking, and resource control is necessary for an interpretion of the developmental cycle of chiefdom formation and fragmentation.


Organizational Variability in Mississippian Societies

When the early Euro-American pioneers first encountered earthworks in the interior river valleys of eastern North America, their discoveries sparked a tradition of inquiry that has escalated and evolved with each passing generation. An initial question centered on the origins of the mound builders: Who were these people? Popular speculation favored ancient vanished races or earlier Old World colonizers — in short, almost any group except ancestors of the Indian nations then being driven from the surrounding lands. Sixteenth- and early eighteenth-century observers' accounts of mound construction and use by native North Americans were largely forgotten. Traditional native claims to the sites were mostly ignored. An intellectual climate limited by ethnocentrism and the social circumstances of "manifest destiny" slowed the widespread acknowledgment of a native origin for the monuments. But by the latter nineteenth century, with the growth of the infant science of archaeology, the initial steps were taken to answer a second question: What manner of society did the ancient Americans possess? Perhaps those first explorers of the past did not anticipate that so reasonable a question would generate a multitude of hard-won answers in our present century.

Within the last 50 years archaeologists have discovered that around the tenth century A.D., native southeastern people began a process of cultural development far more complex than anything that had occurred previously. These late prehistoric peoples and the era in which they lived are known as Mississippian. Mississippian societies are characterized by intensive maize cultivation, sedentary communities with earthen platform- mound-and-plaza arrangements, extensive exchange networks of raw materials, shared symbolism, and hierarchical social organization (Griffin 1985; Steponaitis 1986).

Typically, Mississippian societies described as chiefdoms or ranked societies are recognized by a number of organizational characteristics: ranked social structure with ascribed status categories; hierarchical settlement systems; some degree of craft specialization; centralized control of resources and labor; and construction of public works (Peebles and Kus 1977). Of course, these categories are attempts to come to grips with the continuum of scale and complexity in nonstate societies (Feinman and Neitzel 1984). It is this organizational variability that establishes the chiefdom as the fulcrum of cultural evolution.

Archaeologists who wish to understand the organization and development of prehistoric societies face a difficult challenge. Their reconstructions are derived from empirical observations of material remains that, in turn, must be interpreted through inferences based upon arguments of analogy. Two sets of information provide useful analogies for Mississippian societies: (1) general models of cultural evolution drawn from anthropology; and (2) specific historical descriptions of southeastern chiefdoms written by the earliest European observers. Like archaeological data, these parallel pathways to the past defy easy synthesis. But it is useful to begin with a brief survey of these sources for clues about Mississippian organizational variability and the basis for leadership in these societies. Chiefdom size, degree of social ranking, and control of economic resources are identified as key variables in the developmental cycle of chiefdom formation and fragmentation. In the following chapters these insights are applied to the archaeology of the ancient agricultural communities of western Alabama and adjacent Mississippi.

Chiefdoms and Ranked Society in the Southeast

The early historical observations of southeastern societies are a productive source for the reconstruction of Mississippian social order (Hudson et al. 1985). They may provide a means to move beyond broad categorizations to encompass the specific form, content, and variability revealed by archaeologists. Nevertheless, it is often difficult to interpret these observations or apply them to the archaeological record. In addition, the early historical documents do not form a continuous written record. Instead, two sets of observations are available, separated by an interval of about 150 years in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for which there are few or no known written descriptions of native life in the interior Southeast.

The sixteenth-century expeditions of De Soto, Luna, Pardo, and others produced descriptions of Late Mississippian societies with populous fortified towns, powerful chiefs, and complex interrelationships of tribute, alliance, and warfare. These descriptions depict southeastern chiefdoms prior to later disruptions. The conquistadores traveled through a social landscape composed of native populations that varied greatly in polity size and social complexity. They encountered not only chiefs who exercised military or political dominance over large territories, but also smaller, independent horticultural communities.

The most powerful chiefs exacted tribute from subordinate chiefs of other towns located within their domain and were able to marshall hundreds of warriors to oppose the Spaniards. Chiefs wore special dress and insignia of office (Bourne 1973:I:81, 88), maintained residences atop earthen mounds (Bourne 1973:I:87, II:28, 101), and some chiefs were conveyed in a litter carried by a retinue of prominent individuals (Bourne 1973:I:81). Taken as hostages, chiefs were instrumental in providing the Spaniards with food and goods as the expeditions moved from town to town within their territory.

While these descriptions indicate considerable chiefly power, the presence of the Spanish army potentially distorts interpretations of native political authority and organization. The very language of the narratives tends to obscure as much as it illuminates. The native political situation is described in such terms as lords, vassals, provinces, and tribute. Some readers assign to the southeastern chiefdoms the same political order that these terms ordinarily suggest. But it is equally possible that the Spanish inaccurately imposed their own profoundly hierarchical, feudal worldview upon societies they never understood; societies organized along quite different principles. The Spanish tendency to portray chiefs as autocrats is probably more the product of ethnocentrism than actual circumstance (Swanton 1979:6). In the narratives are hints that, when not prevented by the Spanish, chiefs conferred with a council to make decisions (Bourne 1973:I:75, 113). The physical strength and demeanor of Tascalusa and other chiefs suggest charismatic personality and prowess in warfare as important sources of authority (Swanton 1979:652).

The more perceptive eighteenth-century French and English observers, who often lived with their native hosts, penned detailed interpretations of southeastern social organization and political leadership. (E.g., Du Pratz, Charlevoix, Milfort, Penicaut, Adair, Bartram, Hawkins, and Romans are frequent references for this period. They are most accessible to the nonspecialist in Swanton [1979], and in reprints such as Adair [1968] and Bartram [1958].) As in the earlier Spanish accounts, the eighteenth-century native polities exhibited a considerable range in size and political complexity. Most groups, such as the Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Muskogees, are described as relatively "democratic" societies with a strong egalitarian ethos, composed of autonomous demographic units organized into informal, politically decentralized confederacies or "nations." But there were a few groups, such as the Natchez and their neighbors in the Lower Mississippi Valley, that impressed the Europeans with sumptuary ritual, sacrifice of retainers, and a social hierarchy of "nobles" and "commoners."

Natchez society consisted of ranked kin groups, of which the most prominent were the Suns, a "noble" rank with ascribed privileges. The top-ranking Natchez authority figures, the Great Sun and the Great War Chief, were drawn from the Sun kin group. There was a gradient of social positions based on genealogical nearness to the Great Sun, but social mobility through merit had considerable latitude (Swanton 1911:100–108). Furthermore, the French noted that the Suns did not conform to European conceptions of an aristocracy because of a rule of exogamy that forbade Suns to marry other Suns.


Excerpted from Ancient Chiefdoms of the Tombigbee by John H. Blitz. Copyright © 1993 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents


Tables and Figures,
1 - Introduction,
2 - Organizational Variability in Mississippian Societies,
3 - The Cultural-Historical Context for the Mississippian Occupation Along the Central Tombigbee River,
4 - Platform-Mound Excavation at Lubbub Creek,
5 - Storage, Defense, and Chiefs,
6 - Ceramic Distributions at Lubbub Creek,
7 - Prestige Goods at Lubbub Creek and Beyond,
8 - Interpretations and Conclusion,

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