Mississippian Maize Agriculture: Not Merely a Staple Crop, but a Way of Life

To say that the rise of Mississippian Culture in A.D. 1050 was a unique event in Illinois history is to severely understate the complex’s significance. Cahokia was the first cultural manifestation of its kind in the western hemisphere north of Mexico. All at once, the fairly large Late Late Woodland site of Cahokia went from a population of 1000-2000 to an unprecedented full-blown city of more than 10,000, complete with a bustling metropolitan area of suburbs and farmsteads (Pauketat 2004). Building styles changed, as did the settlement patterns. In addition, a complex authoritarian government arose, which was a major change from the still largely nomadic and politically uncontrolled Woodland lifestyle. Thus, when the somewhat simple Old Cahokia of the Late Late Woodland era transformed into the culturally and politically complex Middle Mississippian Cahokia nearly overnight, lives of Native Americans changed permanently. While it is true that many conditions must have led to the aforementioned drastic alterations, the foremost factor in these changes was the rise of maize agriculture.

Corn intensification in Southern Illinois began in 800 A.D. when migrating Southern Indians arrived with the exotic crop. Corn grew well in the rich soil of the American Bottom. After seeing how much food a corn crop could produce with relative ease in comparison to the small starchy seeds prevalent in the Late Woodland diet, Indians began to clear bottomland fields to make room for more corn.

In chapter 8 of the 1997 Wisconsin Archaeologist, William Green asserts that “Corn-based agriculture was gaining in importance.” As a result, he continues, “communities were growing in size and permanence, territories were increasingly disputed, and interactions among communities were becoming more complex” (Green 1997). Because corn was a relatively plentiful crop, women could eat more often and have greater health and fertility. This increased fertility led to larger sustainable populations. This is because people had greater access to food, which enabled them to live longer and, therefore, have a longer amount of time to produce children. Because children had enough to eat, they had a higher chance of reaching adulthood instead of starving to death.

Communities became more permanent because it was in the Native Americans’ best interest to cultivate and protect their corn crops all year long. Staying in one place to tend to corn fields ensured a greater harvest. Gone were the difficulties posed by the hunting-gathering lifestyle. Indians no longer had to move to different areas in different parts of the year just to find enough resources to survive. The lifestyle of traveling around a region digging storage pits and building several new temporary houses per year became obsolete due to its unnecessary inconvenience. In its place, Indians developed an agriculturally-intensive lifestyle in which they built large permanent houses next to their corn fields. Thanks to their new lifestyle, Indians could seek shelter and store food in the same house for generations instead of building new houses every few months.

With greater prosperity came greater conflict and more complicated relationships. Whereas Native Americans were concerned with merely surviving in previous periods, in the Mississippian era, they could afford to fight each other in attempts to gain more land and wealth. Furthermore, in Woodland society few families were particularly prosperous, so few conflicts erupted as a result of envy. Yet in the more complex and resourceful Mississippian society, there was more to gain for the victor of any particular conflict.

Furthermore, the growth of Mississippian agricultural cities ended traditional settlement patterns. Late Woodland period families circled their temporary houses around open spaces the whole group shared. They held ceremonies and made important decisions on these spaces, which archaeologists call courtyards. This settlement pattern illustrates their mentality of focusing their lives on their families’ needs. Yet when the Mississippian rulers took charge, family courtyards were no longer used. The emphasis shifted from one’s family to his or her chief. This is illustrated in William R. Iseminger’s depiction of Cahokia at 1150 A.D. located on page 213 in the 8th chapter of the 1997 Wisconsin Archaeologist. Houses and other structures were not constructed around courtyards, but instead they surrounded Monks Mound and the adjacent plaza. The political leaders of Cahokia no doubt planned this particular city layout to remind Cahokians to remain mindful of their rulers above all others.

Another text that refers to Mississippian culture in Cahokia and the effects of its maize agriculture is The Smithsonian Book of North American Indians: Before the Coming of the Europeans. In it, Philip Kopper supports Green’s statements that corn agriculture was an important agent of population growth. “During the Mississippian period,” he writes on pages 164-165, “all the trends of the earlier epochs reached a peak. Inhabiting the fertile river valleys, peoples all over the Southeast came to depend to a large extent on agriculture to feed their burgeoning populations” (Kopper 1986). Instead of constantly searching for new food-rich areas, the Mississippians relied on corn agriculture.

Kopper also makes reference to the political systems that emerged in Cahokia on page 164. Common people’s everyday work “supported high-status families, including that of the chief of each center and its surrounding area” (Kopper 1986). Ergo, laborers could not merely grow maize and keep the crop yields for themselves, but had to pay tribute in the form of corn to high officials that ruled over the farmers. Armed with the prosperity they gained by charging tribute, leaders distanced themselves from the commoners by wearing special jewelry, eating more meat, cooking in fancy vessels, and living on and being buried in mounds that towered over common people’s modest dwellings.

One page 8 of his book entitled Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians, Timothy Pauketat identifies corn agriculture as “a hallmark of the Mississippian period” (Pauketat 2004). He writes that in the time prior to the Mississippian, residents of the uplands began moving down into the floodplains in order to take advantage of the mineral-abundant bottomland soil. Thus, the proliferation of corn agriculture caused a spike in Cahokia’s population for more than one reason. Not only did plentiful maize resources create a large food base for Mississippians that enabled the population to grow, but it also enticed Native Americans to move into Mississippian agricultural centers to take advantage of the higher quality of life therein.

The establishment of an authoritarian government that owed itself to the intensification of corn agriculture led to a complete change in architecture at A.D. 1050. Pauketat’s discussion of Mississippian wall-trench house characteristics on page 80 adds support for the theory that society’s focus shifted from the family to the government. Late Woodland-era families built houses from post holes that were filled with logs to support walls and a ceiling. In contrast, Mississippian families probably did not build their own homes. The families may or may not have built the trenches in which to place their walls, but the walls themselves were likely prefabricated by professionals. Building a home was no longer solely a family activity. Judging by the fact that essentially all Cahokian structures were built in this style, the chiefs of Cahokia must have had a hand in organizing their city’s construction. Therefore, the chieftainship that derived its power from corn tribute used its authority to establish a unique style of architecture that served as a symbol of Mississippian culture to both Mississippians themselves and American archaeologists.

Another authoritative source on the effects of corn agriculture on Mississippian society is the Cahokia Mounds Interpretive Center in Collinsville, Illinois. According to one exhibit, corn in Mississippian society meant much more than food. Maize also served as currency, and elites often traded it for copper or seashells. As is evident by the sheer variety of artifacts found in Cahokia, the trade networks Cahokian elites utilized stretched thousands of miles across the continent.

The Interpretative Center’s estimate for Cahokia’s population at its height is 20,000 people. This may be a bit optimistic on the museum’s part, since Pauketat’s figure in page 79 of Ancient Cahokia is between 10,200 and 15,300 in the Lohmann phase. Yet the fact remains that the Mississippians’ numbers were staggering in comparison to those of earlier times in the same area. The Interpretive Center’s exhibits maintain that increased societal complexity was a direct result of Cahokia’s agriculture-induced population growth.

One aspect of Cahokia’s complexity is its government. Due to its large population, Cahokia required strong, stable leadership. This is believed to have come in the form of a theocratic chieftainship. In this system of government, the chief united the different segments of society through a common religion. Moreover, rulers and priests gained their political power through birth instead of achievement.

There were marked class divisions in Cahokia. One’s power was directly proportional to the control he or she had over surplus crops. Thus, the chief at the top of the system called the Great Sun received huge allotments of corn, which allowed him to live a life of wealth, privilege, and prestige. The elite class, which counseled the Great Sun, acquired the privilege of living inside the protective palisade wall. They, like the Great Sun, were of noble birth, and they also received allotments of corn they used for trade currency.

The Interpretative Center’s exhibit hypothesizes that community leaders and the commoners they represented provided the support for the ruling and upper class. The Great Sun and the elites themselves had little to do with corn production. The leaders, who were not of noble birth, organized and designed public construction and farming activities under the supervision of the elites. Without the leaders to oversee the commoners and without the commoners to perform the actual manual labor, the impressive mounds and buildings of Cahokia could have never been erected. Yet commoners were forced to forfeit the crops that were rightfully theirs, and leaders received little-to-none of the corn surplus. Thus, it is an ironic-yet-true paradox that those who worked the most received the least recognition, and those who did the least work received the most prestige and crop surplus.

Another relevant issue discussed at the Interpretative Center exhibits is the decline of Cahokia. Ironically, the same impetus that sparked Cahokia’s growth led to its demise: corn. One factor causing Cahokia’s downfall was malnutrition. Diets specializing in maize did not provide all the vitamins and minerals ideal for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Because corn was frequently ground into powder with rocks, oftentimes bits of the rocks would crumble and cause severe dental decay when Mississippians ate their corn. There is clear evidence in skeletal remains that, on average, the dental health of a Mississippian is worse than that of a Late Woodlander.

In addition, the fact that plentiful food from corn agriculture aided reproduction led to problems. Eventually, the population became so high that it could not sustain itself; there was not enough corn to feed everyone after paying tribute to the Great Sun. Poor crop turnouts harmed everyone, but they especially affected commoners since they were obligated to send crops to the chief and his elites regardless of whether or not they produced a surplus. In addition, the close proximity of city-dwellers in Cahokia caused by high population densities contributed to easier disease transmission. The Cahokians were not able to prevent pollution from wood fuel or animal and human waste, which also negatively contributed to the already dismal state of Cahokian health.

Moreover, after hundreds of years of intensive corn agriculture, the nearby land resources may well have been depleted. According to one exhibit, the extended period of high population density must have taken a great toll on both natural and human resources, which caused life expectancy and overall health to decrease. Perhaps the Cahokians reached a peak in farming, after which the fields failed to produce expected yields. The failure in agriculture may have led to commoners’ dissatisfaction with Cahokian nobles. Their unpopularity could have caused Cahokians to become hostile or to simply leave the area in search of better land.

Cahokia was largely abandoned by 1300 A.D., but Middle Mississippian influence on American Indian affairs did not cease once Cahokia fell. Wall trench construction and widespread corn agriculture continued, as did mimicry of intricate Mississippian pottery and art. Without a major power to ensure peace and stability, village-to-village warfare became an everyday fact of life for many Indians in formerly Mississippian or Mississippianized areas. This violence continued until Europeans reached America in the late 15th century. Due to Europeans’ colonization of the Americas, historians and archaeologists will never know whether or not the rampant violence would have ended or if, perhaps, another powerful group would have claimed the throne of Native American power once held by the Mississippians.


Green, William.

1998 Chapter 8: Middle Mississippian Peoples. The Wisconsin Archaeologist 78(1/2):202-222.

Kopper, Philip.

1986 The Smithsonian Book of North American Indians. Smithsonian Books, Washington D.C.

Pauketat, Timothy.

2004. Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.