The last prehistoric cultural development in North America was the Mississippians, thriving from approximately 800 AD until the arrival of European explorers. The Mississippian Culture spanned from Wisconsin and Minnesota in the north, through Georgia to the south, and westward into the Great Plains. These people enjoyed an intricate system of trading, were accomplished craftsmen, and practiced sophisticated religious beliefs.
Early Mississippian Culture was centered around the Ocmulgee Indian Mounds. About 950 AD the Etowah Indian Mounds were begun. With the fall of Mississippian culture at Ocmulgee around 1200 AD the Etowah Mississippians rose, ruling from sometime after 1200 AD until 1400 AD. At that point the cultural center of the Moundbuilders in Georgia shifted to a village on the Coosawattee. The Etowah Mounds do not appear to be active after 1450AD.
Chief Priests governed their fortified towns. These leaders lived in temples atop large earthen mounds overlooking a central ceremonial plaza. Lesser leaders might also live on mounds, but the tallest would be for the temple of the Chief Priest. Upon the death of the Chief Priest, his temple would be destroyed and another layer of earth would be added for his successor. Ones social standing would be reflected in how close his home was to the plaza.
The area of the Etowah Indian Mounds at the confluence of the Etowah River and Pumpkinvine Creek was inhabited nearly continuously from 950AD until 1450AD. Building on Mound C seems to have stopped for a very brief period from sometime after 1200AD until sometime before 1250AD.
About 1200AD a regional cultural shift within the Mississippians began with the introduction of the Hightower-style gorget featuring a turkey and made of copper probably from the northern Mississippi River. Some researchers have concluded that the mounds were not in use early the 13th century from a period of inactivity in burials. By 1250AD Moundbuilders were again actively burying their dead and added the earliest "birdman" copper plates in a small number of burials at Etowah Mound C. Archeologists believe that the themes in both the gorgets and the plate are similar to later Sioux Indian themes.
"It is altogether unknown to us what could have induced the Indians to raise such a heap of earth in this place . . . It is reasonable to suppose, however, that they were to serve some important purpose in those days, as they were public works, and would have required the united labour and attention of a whole nation." --William Bartram, writer/naturalist, 1775
Courtesy National Park Service
Population centers were found in river basins, as their culture was sustained by the cultivation of crops. Towns were subordinate to other towns with more powerful Chief Priests; thus confederacies were established. Etowah was a capital city in this river floodplain.
Although the Mississippian people, particularly the Chief Priests, were of significantly larger physical stature than the Europeans explorers who encountered them, they had no immunities to the explorers' diseases. Even the common cold was a killer. The spread of diseases introduced by the Europeans, as well as violent encounters, hastened the decline of the Mississippian Culture. The Creek Nation is believed to be the southeastern descendant of these Moundbuilders.
Col. C. C. Jones (Charles Colcock Jones, Jr.) wrote about the Etowah Mounds in Antiquities of the Southern Indians. Charles Whittlesey wrote about an 1873 visit in 1881. Cyrus Thomas visited the mounds for the Smithsonian Bureau of Ethnology.
According to Dr. Max White the most important Moundbuilders sites in Georgia are
Note: The Kolomoki Site in southern Georgia appears to be a transitional site from Woodland Indians to Moundbuilders and is not included in the list.