Section 2.1: Prehistoric Native American Activities in the Lower Mississippi Valley

Human groups have been attracted to the resources of the Lower Mississippi Valley and the Gulf Coast for as long as there have been people in North America. The first Native American societies arrived in North America around the end of the Pleistocene between about 18,000-15,000 years ago. The earliest phase of Native American activity in North America is referred to the Paleoindian period. There is abundant evidence that Paleoindian hunter-gatherers lived on the coastal plains adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico and hunted large game animals, such as an extinct species of giant bison (Bison antiquus), modern bison (Bison bison), and perhaps even extinct megafauna species such as mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) and mastodon (Mammut americanum).

By the time the modern Mississippi delta began to form, around 7,000 years ago, Native American populations in North America had become much larger and certain groups had begun to settle more permanently in certain places on the landscape with particularly abundant food resources. The Lower Mississippi Valley was one such location where large populations of hunter-gatherers began to occupy sites more permanently.

Poverty Point is an extremely important archaeological site located in the Lower Mississippi Valley of Louisiana. Poverty Point was first occupied by Native American hunter-gatherer groups nearly 4,000 years ago. The site is famous for its massive earthworks, which take the form of a ring of concentric semicircles, as well as several large mounds. By virtue of these archaeological features and their great antiquity, Poverty Point has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

The construction of such earthworks, especially mounds, would eventually become a pervasive feature of Native American societies in Southeastern and Central North America. Poverty Point is the earliest known example of this phenomenon and, since it was constructed by hunter-gatherers, it shows that farming was not necessary to support large populations and large-scale cooperative activities, such as the building of monuments. This fact has been surprising to many archaeologists, who have tended to have negative preconceptions about the capabilities of hunter-gatherer societies.

Another important archaeological site in Louisiana is the Tchefuncte Site, which is located on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain and dates to more than 2,500 years ago. While this site is today located along the shoreline of a large freshwater lake, when it was occupied long ago, it was located in the Mississippi Delta on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico. Like Poverty Point, the Tchefuncte Site is characterized by the construction of mounds, which were also built by hunter-gatherers. And while this site is particularly impressive in its size and scale, there are many other sites from the same general time period scattered across the St. Bernard lobe of Mississippi River delta sediment on both the North and South Shores of Lake Pontchartrain.

Finally, there are also many more recent prehistoric settlements located along the lower courses of the Mississippi River and its distributaries. Many of these sites belong to the so-called Coles Creek and Plaquemine cultures, which began more than a 1,000 years ago and lasted through the colonization of North America by European populations. The Plaquemine culture existed at the same time as the great Mississippian chiefdoms of the Central and Southeastern U.S., which built enormous earthen monuments at sites like Cahokia, Illinois, and Moundville, Alabama.

Sites belonging to the Coles Creek and Plaquemine cultures also built large mounds at their settlements, such as the impressive mound group at the site of Bayou Grande Chenier in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. While groups living at such later sites supplemented their diets with maize (corn) farming, archaeologists now believe that they relied primarily on naturally-occurring food sources (Kidder & Fritz, 1993). In addition, while there is evidence for some cultural connections between sites in the Mississippi River delta and major chiefdom settlements like Cahokia, it is clear that populations in the Mississippi River delta maintained distinctive adaptations to local ecological conditions, as well as unique cultural identities. Finally, these societies were very likely ancestral to many of the Native American tribes that continue to live in Louisiana today.

The prehistory of human activities in the Lower Mississippi Valley shows some provocative patterning. It seems likely that some Native American groups were attracted to the new land surfaces of the Mississippi Delta as they formed (Kidder et al., 2008). These new land surfaces were hotspots of ecological richness and diversity, and they offered an abundance of the food resources on which Native American foragers relied. These re- sources included a great variety of fish, shellfish, and terrestrial species, such as white-tailed deer and rabbit, as well as plant resources, such as live oak (Quercus virginiana).

It would appear that prehistoric Native American populations, in a sense, followed the sedimentation of the Mississippi River, settling on the new land surfaces of the delta as they formed. These new land surfaces experienced a surge of ecological productivity as salt water environments turned brackish and then eventually freshwater. Then, as these land surfaces stabilized and new ones began to form downstream, their ecological richness decreased. When this occurred, old settlements were slowly abandoned and new ones were constructed, once again targeting the newly formed land surfaces downstream. This cycle appears to have played out with remarkable consistency over the course of several thousand years.

In summary, the prehistory of Native American populations living in the Lower Mississippi Valley is intimately linked with the processes of sedimentation, the formation of new land surfaces, and the ecological dynamics that went along with those geological processes. There is much to learn from the ancient peoples who lived in the wetlands of the Mississippi River delta in terms of how they responded to the changing landscapes in which they lived. Furthermore, the rich cultural heritage of modern Native American communities in Louisiana shows that these traditions are still alive and that they have much to teach us in terms of how we think about the problems facing the coast today.

Go to: Section 2.2: Early Colonial Settlements in the Mississippi Delta