While Caddo Indians flourished in northwestern Louisiana, by approximately A.D. 1000, those in the rest of the state had a slightly different way of life. Many of the latter were part of the Plaquemine Culture, who were descendants of Troyville-Coles Creek Indians. In keeping with the patterns established by their ancestors, Plaquemine people built large ceremonial centers with two or more large mounds facing an open plaza. The flat-topped, pyramidal mounds were constructed in several stages and eventually measured more than 100 feet on a side and 10 feet high. Sometimes they were topped by one or two smaller mounds.
Plaquemine Indians often built mounds on top of the ruins of a house or temple and constructed similar buildings on top of the mound. In earlier times, buildings were usually circular, but later they were likely to be rectangular. They were constructed of wattle and daub, and sometimes with wall posts sunk into foot-deep wall trenches.
At times, the Indians dug shallow, oval or rectangular graves in the mounds. These might have been for primary burials of individuals, but more frequently they were for the reburial of remains originally interred elsewhere. Some graves contained only skulls, and one of these had 66 skulls. Burial offerings included pottery, pipes, stone points, and axes made of ground stone.
The Medora Site, typical of the Plaquemine Culture, is in West Baton Rouge Parish. The site had two mounds approximately 400 feet apart with a plaza in between. One was a flat-topped pyramid 125 feet on a side and 13 feet high, with a small domed mound three feet high and 25 feet in diameter on top. The other one was two feet high and 100 feet in diameter. Eighteen thousand pieces of broken pottery were found at Medora, along with a few stone tools.
One kind of pottery occasionally placed in the graves is called "killed" pottery. This type has a hole in the base of the vessel that was cut while the pot was being made, usually before it was fired. The Plaquemine Indians also decorated their pots in other characteristic ways. They sometimes added small solid handles called lugs and textured the surface by brushing clumps of grass over the vessel before it was fired. They often cut designs into the surface of the wet clay, and like their Caddo contemporaries, the Plaquemine Indians engraved designs on pots after they were fired. Plaquemine Indians also had undecorated pots that they used for ordinary daily tasks.
Ordinary Plaquemine people lived much as the average Caddo Indians. They participated in festivals and ceremonies at mound centers but spent most of their time with families and neighbors collecting and producing food, or participating in village activities.
During the early part of the period some hunters still used atlatls, but soon bows and arrows predominated. Plaquemine Indians hunted deer, bear, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, turkeys, and ducks; fished for gar and drum; and collected mussels. Although these Indians tended gardens of corn, squash, pumpkins, and beans, they still collected many wild seeds, roots, nuts, and fruits.
Plaquemine Ceramic Vessel
At approximately the same time as Caddo and Plaquemine Indians were living in Louisiana, Mississippian Culture people in the St. Louis area had developed the largest prehistoric center in the United States.
This was a ceremonial, residential, and trading center with a population of 35,000-40,000 people. The Mississippian Culture spread throughout the southeastern United States and was characterized by huge earthen temple mounds, widespread trading networks, and a ceremonial complex represented by elaborately shaped pottery and stone, bone, shell, and copper objects.
No evidence has been found of major Mississippian centers in Louisiana comparable to those established in Georgia at Etowah and in Alabama at Moundville. There is evidence that sometime between A.D. 1000 and A.D. 1600 small groups of people from the eastern Mississippian centers made their way to Louisiana. They came to the Avery Island area to collect and refine salt, and to other parts of the state to search for other materials.
Through repeated contacts, a few groups of Louisiana Indians learned classic Mississippian techniques of making pottery and other ceremonial objects. Some Indians in the south-eastern and northeastern parts of Louisiana may even have established close ties with their eastern neighbors and added Mississippian customs to the Plaquemine Culture. Louisiana groups that may have descended from those Mississippian groups are those who speak the Tunican, Chitimachan, and Muskogean languages. Those who probably descended from Plaquemine Culture Indians are the Taensa and Natchez.
As Europeans explored North America, their diseases spread rapidly to Native Americans throughout the continent. These illnesses killed many Indians and led to significant changes in traditional Indian life. Nevertheless, descriptions of the Natchez and Taensa Indians written by European explorers provide a glimpse of how the late prehistoric Indians lived.
European travelers reported that some Indians lived near the ceremonial centers that had mounds surrounding a central plaza. The two most important buildings, the temple and the chief's house, were here.
The temple was on the summit of one of the mounds or was in a prominent place facing the plaza.
It had thick wattle and daub walls and a thatched roof with carved and painted wooden animal effigies on top. Inside, a sacred fire was tended by several Indians, whose job it was to keep the fire always burning. Bones of past chiefs, and servants who had died with them, were stored in baskets or on a low clay altar. Valued objects, such as clay figurines, crystals, and carved wooden objects also were kept in the temple.
The temple faced a plaza that was the scene of community feasts and rituals, as well as games, such as chunkey. In chunkey, opponents hurled long poles after a rolling disc. The one whose pole landed closest to the place where the disc stopped rolling won a point or valued possessions if bets had been made.
Ceremonialism at a historic Indian mound site
The chief's house, situated on top of a mound, overlooked the plaza area. The chief used the house as his living quarters and as a reception area for visitors and subjects. The furnishings of the house included wooden beds covered with matting, and perhaps a wooden stump used as a stool. Reed or cane torches provided light. Servants waited on the chief, always keeping a respectful distance and quickly meeting all of his needs. No one ever used the chief's belongings or walked in front of him.
The chief was a highly honored and respected person, and his death was a time for great mourning. Ceremonies, dancing, and processions were part of the burial rituals that continued for several days. The chief's wife, servants, and others who volunteered for the honor, were sedated and ritually strangled as part of the ceremonies. The bodies were placed on special raised tombs covered with branches and mud. After many weeks, the bones were removed and placed in baskets that were stored in the temple. Eventually, the bones were buried in a platform in the temple or in the mound when it was expanded. The deceased chief's house was usually burned and perhaps covered with another layer of earth before the new chief's house was built. The son of the dead chief's sister became the next ruler.
People from miles around came to participate in the burial ceremonies, after which they returned to their villages and resumed their normal lives. Some lived in small communities near the mounds, but others lived in scattered settlements miles away.
Their clothing was very simple. Men wore only a cloth or deerskin breechcloth, unless the weather was cold. Then they added long deerskin shirts and leggings. Women wore skirts of skin or of cloth woven from tree bark, and in cold weather they also wore a skin wrap.
Women usually wore their hair long, sometimes tying it back or braiding it. Men wore theirs short and in many styles. Sometimes they completely removed the hair from one side of their head. Women often decorated themselves by blackening their teeth with ashes and by rubbing red pigment on their faces, shoulders, and stomachs. Men decorated themselves, too, especially on ceremonial occasions when they painted themselves with red, white, or black markings and tied feathers in their hair. Both men and women wore earrings in their pierced ears and large pendants or strings of shells or seeds around their neck. Honored warriors and upper class people wore red and black tattoos on their faces and other parts of their bodies.
Men and women had very different daily tasks. Women took care of the young children; planted, tended, and harvested the crops; cooked the meals; and made the pottery, baskets, mats, and clothing. Men's work consisted of house building, canoe making, and clearing land for gardens, along with defense, hunting, woodcutting, and making the tools for these chores. Men also had primary responsibilities for ritual and political activities.
The European explorers traded with the men. Europeans provided guns, ammunition, metal kettles, iron tools, glass beads, and metal ornaments. These were sometimes given as gifts to hosts, guides, or to the chief, and they were also exchanged for pearls or baskets, and for necessities, such as meat, oil, salt, skins, and horses.
Although the journals of European explorers provide some information about historic Louisiana Indians, hundreds of questions about prehistoric Indians remain unanswered. When did the first Indians reach Louisiana? What sparked the development of the Poverty Point Culture? Where and how were the Mexican plants of corn, beans, and squash introduced to Louisiana? Which prehistoric groups were the ancestors of each of Louisiana's historic Indian tribes? The answers to these and many other questions remain buried in archaeological sites throughout the state. If enough sites can be studied before they are destroyed, there is hope that the story of the state's prehistory can be better explained.
The importance of archaeology in understanding Louisiana's past does not stop with the end of the prehistoric era. Historical archaeologists also study Indian sites that date after contact with Europeans to document the many dramatic changes in Indian culture during historical times. Archaeologists also excavate sites associated with African-American and European-American life in Louisiana. These archaeological investigations supplement, and often correct, the written documents that describe the state's history.
With the cooperation and participation of Louisiana's citizens, the archaeological study of our state will continue. Through the protection of sites and the funding of scientific excavations, more can be discovered about the past. Then Louisiana's prehistory and early historical development can be interpreted more accurately and more completely.