Sometime after 200 B.C., the highly influential Hopewell Culture was centered in Ohio and Illinois. By at least the first century A.D., groups of Louisiana Indians had met Hopewell travelers and had learned about their culture. Hopewell people had powerful leaders who organized construction of large mounds in which certain high-status people were buried along with exquisitely crafted objects made of copper, stone, bone, shell, pottery, and rare minerals.
At about the same time, the Marksville Culture flourished in Louisiana. It shared a number of important traits with the Hopewell Culture. For example, Marksville burial mounds, pottery, pipes, and ornaments resembled those of the Hopewell Culture. Marksville people most likely had leaders who directed craftsmen, organized community life, and officiated at burial ceremonies.
Burial rituals must have been a very important part of the Marksville Culture. Large mounds were constructed in several stages over many years. The first stage usually was a flat, low platform approximately three feet high and 40 feet in diameter. Burial ceremonies may have been held months or years apart and those who died between ceremonies were gathered up and buried together. Some remains had been temporarily stored in other areas, so these were interred along with primary burials and cremations.
The Marksville Site, in Avoyelles Parish, was the first scientifically excavated site of the Marksville Culture. Burial mounds at the site are encompassed by a horseshoe-shaped earthen embankment almost 3,000 feet long. The site is now a State Commemorative Area open to the public. A museum at the park houses an exhibit describing the site and the people who lived there.
Pits were dug into the mound surface, and sometimes lined with logs and matting. Human remains were placed in the pits with pottery, pipes, stone points, shells, asphaltum, quartz crystals, and other valuable objects. Some of the bodies were ornamented with jewelry, such as copper beads, earspools, bracelets, and necklaces of shell, pearls, or stone. Occasionally, a dog was placed in a grave. The pits were then filled with dirt.
Later, other pits might be dug for another occasion, or burials might be made by placing remains on the mound surface and covering them with a layer of earth. More construction eventually increased the overall size of the mound and shaped it into a dome. People buried in the mounds were high status individuals.
Marksville pottery was made from local clay, but it was quite similar in shape and decoration to pottery of the Hopewell Culture in Illinois and Ohio. A typical Marksville vessel was three to five inches tall and three to seven inches in diameter. Sometimes the rim had cross-hatched lines on the exterior at the top. The rest of the pot commonly had a design outlined with bold lines. Quite often the designs were geometric shapes or stylized birds. The background was textured by rocking or stamping a small, toothed tool across the wet clay. These decorated pots were made primarily for ceremonial uses.
Marksville people also made other objects, including copper and stone jewelry, platform pipes, and figurines. The pipes had relatively broad, flat bases (platforms) approximately three inches long. At one end was a hole for a wooden or reed pipe stem, and in the center was a bowl. Sometimes an animal figure was on the platform, with the bowl formed in the animal's back. Animal and human figurines were also made. Most of these objects were buried in mounds as religious or burial offerings.
Marksville Indians fishing
In contrast, Marksville people made most of their utilitarian objects the same way as Tchefuncte people before them. Marksville people hunted with atlatls, bolas, and nets, and fished with hooks and line. They gathered wild plants and shellfish, and probably grew a few domesticated plants in small gardens. They stored food in pots and baskets, and cooked in pots.
Despite the Hopewellian contact, much of daily life was unaffected by relationships with the northerners. Through time, Hopewellian influence diminished. Louisiana Indians built fewer burial mounds, developed their own distinctive pottery, and began a new way of hunting.
The Troyville-Coles Creek Period lasted from approximately A.D. 400 to A.D. 1100. By the beginning of this period, pottery styles, mound building, and ceremonial life had gradually changed from Marksville patterns.
The Troyville-Coles Creek people continued building ceremonial centers with mounds, but these mounds differed from earlier ones. They were larger, shaped differently, and more numerous. They also served a new purpose. Instead of being primarily for burials, these mounds were constructed to support temples or civic buildings. Pyramidal mounds with flat tops, and sometimes with stepped ramps leading up one side, came into style. They were constructed over hundreds of years and usually were enlarged one or more times. Although the total mound height might reach only 20 feet, the base might be enlarged to more than 200 feet on each side. At certain sites, three to nine mounds eventually were built, all around an open, central plaza.
The Greenhouse Site, in Avoyelles Parish, is the most extensively excavated site that is typical of the Troyville-Coles Creek Period. Seven earthen mounds there surround an open plaza that measures 200 feet by 350 feet. No remains of a village or campsite were found either in the plaza or outside the mound area. This leads archaeologists to conclude that the mound group was used for ceremonial activities only and that villagers lived elsewhere.
A temple and one or more other buildings were usually constructed on a mound summit. These buildings were either circular or rectangular with wattle and daub walls. Wattle is a construction technique whereby branches, twigs, cane, or vines are interlaced around upright posts that have been sunk in the ground. This wattle framework is then plastered with mud or clay daub. The Troyville-Coles Creek people probably used grass thatch or palmetto fronds for the roof.
Some people were buried in the mounds, but in contrast to Marksville burials, the bodies were not accompanied by a rich assortment of objects. One or more bodies were buried in pits or simply laid upon the mound summit and covered with dirt. People also were buried in village areas away from the mounds. No one knows why some individuals were buried in the mounds and some were not. It may be that people associated with mound construction, with temple activities, or those of significant social status were buried in the mounds. Alternatively, if many people died from illness, famine, or disaster, this might have signaled a time for special ceremonies and mound enlargement.
Vessel Sherds and Stone Points
Villages and campsites were often a mile or more from these ceremonial centers. There, daily life was more focused on maintaining a stable food supply than on ceremonial activities. Important changes in hunting techniques helped guarantee this food supply.
During the Troyville-Coles Creek Period the bow and arrow came into use in Louisiana. First invented in Europe thousands of years before, bows and arrows were gradually adopted by people in Asia and eventually by people in North America. The introduction of the bow and arrow meant hunters could shoot farther, more accurately, and with more firepower than before. The arrow points were generally smaller than those used on spears. These then, were the first true arrowheads made in Louisiana.
Troyville-Coles Creek people also continued using the atlatl, as well as the traditional butchering and hide-working tools that had been made since Meso-Indian times. There was no dramatic change in the types of animals hunted during this time. The Indians killed game such as deer, bear, small mammals, and birds. Like their ancestors, these people also ate fish and mollusks.
Troyville-Coles Creek people continued collecting wild seeds, fruits, roots, and other plant foods. They probably cultivated squash, gourds, and native plants, such as sunflowers and lamb's quarters. These Indians no doubt experimented with cultivation for many generations, developing techniques best suited to Louisiana conditions. Certain plant foods were still ground with mealing stones and probably stored in pottery vessels.
During this period, pottery styles changed as people produced more durable pots with more diversified uses. The Troyville-Coles Creek Indians tempered their clay with particles of dried clay before coiling it to shape the pot. They specialized in rounded or barrel-shaped jars and in deep or shallow bowls. The potters removed coil marks by patting the surface with a smooth wooden paddle.
Sometimes they used a carved wooden paddle to stamp designs onto the entire outer surface of the vessel. Most of the time, however, they decorated only the top half of the pot with designs formed by incising lines or pressing tools into the damp clay. The colors of the clay were usually tan, brown, gray, or black. On rare occasions, vessels were colored red on the outside or shaped into human effigies.
Late in the Troyville-Coles Creek Period, changes began to occur. Indians in the northwestern part of the state developed close ties with people living north and west of them, while those in the east became more closely aligned with people to their east.
By about A.D. 800, people living in northwestern Louisiana had developed close ties with people in southeastern Oklahoma, northeastern Texas, and southern Arkansas. From this region emerged the Caddo Culture. These Indians developed a fine, new style of pottery and used special ornaments and objects made from imported materials. They also prepared elaborate burials of upper class people.
There was little change in the daily life of the ordinary Indians. Most people spent their lives in small villages and hamlets near streams or lakes. Many trends established in earlier generations persisted. Now garden crops included corn, squash, gourds, native plants, and later, beans. People from these small settlements probably were governed by high status individuals living at the ceremonial centers. Common people were probably required to help build mounds, to supply food, and to make tools or special objects for their rulers. They gathered at the centers when they were needed or when special ceremonies or festivals were celebrated.
Early Caddo people continued the Troyville-Coles Creek custom of constructing ceremonial centers with mounds around a central plaza. They built temples or special buildings on top of the mounds and also dug graves into the mounds for burials of important people.
These mound burials, however, differed somewhat from those of earlier cultures. To bury an honored priest or chief, Caddo people dug a large deep shaft, often all the way from the top of the mound to the ground level. Then they placed the chief's body, and other bodies (possibly of sacrificed servants or family members) in the grave side by side. Special objects were piled in the corner or along the wall of the pit.
At the Gahagan Site, in Red River Parish, early Caddo Indians built mounds and a village around a large open plaza. One mound had three deep shaft burials, each with three to six bodies and 200 to 400 burial items. Some of the unusual burial objects from this site are two clay, human effigy pipes, two copper cutouts of human hands, two copper, long-nosed-mask ear ornaments, two frog effigy pipes, and numerous triangular stone blades called "Gahagan knives."
Burial offerings included exquisite tools, ceremonial objects, and jewelry designated only for high status people. Typical objects were fine pottery, carefully flaked stone knives, arrow points, bows, turtle shell rattles, polished stone axes, rare minerals, stone or clay smoking pipes, animal teeth pendants, bone hairpins, ear ornaments of bone, shell, or copper, and beads of copper, shell, and stone. Unusual objects were pipes in the form of humans and frogs, sheets of copper cut in the shape of hands, and ear ornaments resembling small copper masks. The face of each "mask" was an oval about three inches long, but the nose was seven inches long. Interestingly, at the same time, identical masks were also used by Indians as far away as Missouri, Wisconsin, and Florida.
Caddo potters made special new shapes, such as bottles, and bowls with sharply angled rims. They fired the pieces in a new way so they would be black or dark mahogany in color, then polished the dark surfaces to make them glossy. Some common ornamental designs were curved lines cut into the surface and sometimes highlighted with red or green-colored pigment rubbed into the engraved lines. Much of the utilitarian pottery remained quite similar in appearance to the late Troyville-Coles Creek pottery. Caddo Indians probably still used it for daily chores, whereas they saved more ornate wares for special occasions.
Ordinary Caddo Culture people lived in hamlets. Their lives were centered around hunting, fishing, collecting, and gardening activities. When a commoner died, he or she was buried in the hamlet in a simple grave. Although this way of life appears to be separate from the elaborate life of the elite, the two worlds overlapped at ceremonial occasions, when everyone gathered at the mound centers.
Between A.D. 1100 and A.D. 1400, burials generally were simple, with only one person in a grave. Fewer imported stones and minerals were used to make high status objects, but both ordinary and fine, engraved pottery continued to be made.
After A.D. 1400, many early Caddo customs were revived, but new practices were added. Mound construction continued, with temples, lodges, or chiefs' houses being built on top. These structures characteristically were built of wattle and daub and had thatched roofs. They were used for a time, then burned, probably when the leader or an important person died. Workers covered the ruins with sand or clay and eventually replaced the old building with a new one. Sometimes graves were dug through the floor of standing buildings or through the rubble of burned ones. As many as seven people have been found buried together in these graves, along with food offerings and large numbers of objects.
As in earlier times, important people had special customs and belongings that ordinary people did not have. One custom was that of binding an infant's head to a cradleboard so that as the person grew to maturity the head was noticeably flattened. This characteristic distinguished a high class person from a person of the lower class. Upper class people used ornate clay pipes, conch shell cups, ceremonial objects, fine pottery, and jewelry. Their jewelry included anklets, necklaces, bone hairpins, and ear ornaments made of bone, shell, and pottery. Some pendants were fashioned from mammal teeth or shells, and occasionally a large sea shell pendant had a lizard or salamander engraved on it.
During this late period, the Caddo made some of their most delicate and decorated pottery. Pots ranged in size from miniatures to large wide-mouthed storage vessels. Many shapes were made, but special vessels were formed to resemble birds and turtles, or to act as rattles. Popular designs were circles, scrolls, and crosses engraved into the vessel after firing. Engraved designs were often highlighted with red, white, or green pigments.
Daily life of ordinary people continued as it had during the earlier part of the period. They lived in circular houses in small villages located near their gardens and usually buried their dead along with pottery in simple graves.
By the time the first Europeans reached Caddo villages in the mid-1500s, Caddo Indians were divided into several distinct groups. In Louisiana, these were the Adaes, Doustioni, Natchitoches, Yatasi, and probably the Ouachita. The Indians supplied the Europeans with salt, horses, and food in exchange for glass beads, kettles, guns, ammunition, knives, ceramics, bells, and bracelets. Contact with Spanish and French explorers ended the prehistoric era, and led to rapid and devastating changes in traditional Indian life.