Tennessee’s Lost Civilization
Did you know that Tennessee was once part of a great civilization? From roughly 1000-1450 AD the Mississippian Culture Empire was vast, stretching from Cahokia, IL in the north, down to the Gulf of Mexico in the south. From west to east it held sway from Spiro, OK all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Its trade influence was even greater, with artifacts from Tennessee being found as far north as Michigan, and vice versa. Much like Ancient Greece, the Mississippian Empire was probably controlled by powerful city-states instead of having a single centralized government. Some of the most important cities that we know of were Cahokia, Spiro, Etowah, Moundville, and Mound Bottom.
These cities were huge, some with over 10,000 inhabitants living in the immediate area. They would have been encircled by massive palisade walls, and had great earthen mounds dominating the landscape. On top of these mounds they would have built ceremonial structures and houses for the elite or ruling class. Many of the mounds can still be seen today, some looking like low hills, with the most impressive ones resembling pyramids with flat tops.
At the heart of this sprawling civilization lay the land we now know as Middle Tennessee. Unlike the pristine and seemingly untouched woodland forests that the first Europeans found when they arrived to this area in the 1700s, Middle Tennessee was once dotted with hundreds of villages bustling with activity. Hunting, fishing, and farming dominated daily life. Trade was also extremely important. The diverse ecosystem, rich natural resources, and extensive waterways made this area a perfect spot for all this to occur. Some of the villages grew and became major trading hubs and centers of power. Several of the most important ones in Middle TN were Mound Bottom in Cheatham Co., Castalian Springs in Sumner Co., and the Link Farm Site in Humphreys Co. The artifacts found at these sites attest to the skill and craftsmanship of the artisans who worked and traded there.
Almost all of these sites are found on waterways. Rivers were used as the main means of travel and were the principal trade routes. Tennessee rivers 750 years ago would have been full of canoes brimming with food and trade goods. Pottery, copper, galena, shell gorgets, and highly prized Dover flint were just a few of the items traded all throughout the Southeast and beyond.
Suddenly around 1450, the Mississippian Culture in Middle Tennessee vanished. Everyone either left the area or died out. The once great cities fell into ruin. While the Mississippian Culture continued on in other areas for another hundred years, what happened here in Middle Tennessee remains a mystery. When Europeans came to the area 250 years later, all that remained of this once great civilization were the moldering mounds and graveyards with all their artifacts buried within.
We have one station on the Tennessee History Trail dedicated to Pre-Contact Native Americans. Our signature event is held every October at Bledsoe Creek State Park, with supplemental programming offered throughout the year. Click on the Tennessee History Trail link on the main menu to learn more.
Albright, Edward. Early History of Middle Tennessee. Nashville, Tenn.: Brandon Printing Company, 1909.
Fundaburk, Emma Lila. Sun Circles and Human Hands: The Southeastern Indians- Art and Industry. Edited by Emma Lila Fundaburk and Mary Douglass Fundaburk Foreman. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 2001.
Thruston, Gates. Antiquities of Tennessee. Cincinnati, Ohio: The Robert Clarke Company, 1897. Reprinted, 1972.