Poverty Point sites in Louisiana and western Mississippi exhibit the first major residential settlements and monumental
earthworks in the United States. Although the Poverty Point culture is not well understood in terms of social organization, it was
involved in the transportation of nonlocal raw materials (for example, shell, stone, and copper) from throughout the eastern
United States into the lower Mississippi River Valley to selected sites where the materials were worked into finished products
and then traded. While specific information on Poverty Point subsistence, trade mechanisms, and other cultural aspects is still
speculative, the sites nevertheless exhibit specific material culture, such as baked clay objects, magnetite plummets, steatite
bowls, red-jasper lapidary work, fiber-tempered pottery, and microlithic stone tools. By around 500 B.C., the Poverty Point culture was replaced by the Tchula/Tchefuncte Early Woodland culture, which existed
in western Tennessee, Louisiana, southern Arkansas, western Mississippi, and coastal Alabama. The sites of this lower
Mississippi River Valley culture were small village settlements. Subsistence continued to consist of intensive collecting of wild
plants and animals, as with the preceding Poverty Point culture, but for the first time quantities of pottery were produced. There
appears to be a de-emphasis on long-distance trade and manufacture of lithic artwork noted in the earlier Poverty Point culture.
The Tchula/Tchefuncte Early Woodland culture appears to have coexisted with some Middle Woodland cultures in the lower
Mississippi River Valley.
The pottery of this period appears to have been relatively crude and undecorated. The pottery is
distinctive in being thick, poorly fired and covered on the inside and outside by cord marking. This
cord marking was probably the result of construction techniques in which clay was formed around a
basket or bag before firing. Not all Early Woodland sites had pottery and some researchers suggest
that it was used only for part of the year, perhaps during the processing of acorns or other nuts for
During this time period burials became even more elaborate with increased inclusion of status
artifacts. Some of these exotic artifacts show clear evidence of influence and contact with even more
elaborate and complex cultural groups to the south. In these areas, clearly complex and stratified
societies, probably with full time chiefs and priests, had developed and were interacting with many
other widely distributed groups across North America. Exchange of exotic desirable goods such as
copper, silver, obsidian, sea shells and exotic, often colourful, cherts seems to have been the main
goal of this interaction sphere but, undoubtedly, the exchange of ideas was also important in
stimulating further development. Whether foods or furs for clothing was also exchanged is unknown
at this time.
The main characteristic, besides elaboration of burial practices, that distinguished the Early and Middle Woodland from Late
Archaic traditions, was the gradual intensification of local and interregional exchange of exotic materials. For many years
archeologists have regarded as classic those Middle Woodland sites with elaborate ceremonial earthworks that contained the
burial mound graves of elite individuals buried with exotic mortuary gifts obtained through an extensive trade network covering
most of the eastern United States. Because of the similarity of earthworks and burial goods found at widely scattered sites in
the Southeast and the area north of the Ohio River, it was assumed that a cultural continuity-sometimes referred to as the
Hopewellian Interaction Sphere-existed throughout much of the eastern United States.
At least some nonorganic trade items can
be identified from the study of the burial mounds of the Middle Woodland. To this trade, the Middle Woodland territories of
the Southeast appear to have provided mica, quartz crystals, and chlorite from the Carolinas, and a variety of marine shells, as
well as shark and alligator teeth, from the Florida Gulf Coast. In exchange, the Middle Woodland clans of the Southeast
received galena from Missouri, flint from Illinois, grizzly bear teeth, obsidian and chalcedony from the Rockies, and copper
from the Great Lakes. Standardization of style for the finished artifacts used in this trade may be attributed to a relatively small
number of clan leaders controlling the exchange system and developing their own symbolic artifact language of what trade
goods constituted a reciprocal exchange between clans.
The Middle Woodland (200 – 300 B.C. to A.D. 700 – 900) period is distinguished from the Early
Woodland only in few, relatively minor, aspects. These relate to some aspects of the chipped lithic
tool inventory (i.e. changes in projectile point types) and the addition of decoration of increasing
elaboration to the pottery. Pottery is found on a greater percentage of sites so may have become
more widely used in the seasonal round. There is some evidence of different cultural groups but
these differences appear mostly as style differences in pottery and may be more a result of the
limited state of knowledge for this time period. These different traditions will be described in greater
During the Middle Woodland period, burial
ceremonialism appears to have reached its
peak. It was at this time that the most exotic
items were included in burials and most of
the known burial mounds were constructed.
These include the Serpent Mound at Rice
Lake, a burial mound which was shaped
like a giant snake, and the mounds at Rainy
River. Much of the elaboration in mortuary
ceremonialism is attributed to contact with
the Hopewellian people in the Ohio Valley.
This influence appears to end around A.D.
250 and after this time burial ceremonialism
appears to decrease.
Around A.D. 500, the archeological record reveals a sharp decline in the construction of Middle Woodland burial mounds in
the Hopewellian core area of the Ohio River drainage. The decline in the construction of burial mounds is accompanied by
disruption of the long-distance trade in exotic materials and interregional art styles.
Traditionally, archeologists have viewed the Late Woodland (ca. A.D. 500 – 1000) as a time of cultural poverty. Late
Woodland settlements, with the exception of sites along the Florida Gulf Coast, tended to be small when compared with
Middle Woodland sites. Based on our present-day perspective, few outstanding works of prehistoric art or architecture can be
attributed to this time period. Careful analysis, however, shows that, throughout the Southeast, the Late Woodland was a very
dynamic period. Bow-and-arrow technology, allowing for increased hunting efficiency, became widespread. New varieties of
maize, beans, and squash were introduced or gained economic importance at this time, which greatly supplemented existing
native seed and root plants. Finally, although settlement size was small, there was a marked increase in the numbers of Late
Woodland sites over Middle Woodland sites, indicating a population increase. These factors tend to give a view of the Late
Woodland period as an expansive period, not one of a cultural collapse.
The reasons for possible cultural degradations at the end of the Middle Woodland and the subsequent emergence of the Late
Woodland are poorly understood. There are several possible explanations. The first is that populations increased beyond the
point of carrying capacity of the land, and, as the trade system broke down, clans resorted to raiding rather than trading with
other territories to acquire important resources. A second possibility is that a rapid replacement of the Late Archaic spear and
atlatl with the newer bow-and-arrow technology quickly decimated the large game animals, interrupting the hunting component
of food procurement and resulting in settlements breaking down into smaller units to subsist on local resources. This ended long
distance trade and the need for elite social units. A third possible reason is that colder climate conditions about A.D. 400 might
have affected yields of gathered foods, such as nuts or starchy seeds, thereby disrupting the trade networks.
A fourth and possibly interrelated reason is that intensified horticulture became so successful that increased agricultural
production may have reduced variation in food resource availability between differing areas. This reliance on horticulture,
involving only a few types of plants, would have carried with it a risk where variations in rainfall or climate could cause famine