Winterville Mounds, named for a nearby community, is the site of a prehistoric ceremonial center built by a Native American civilization that thrived from about A.D. 1000 to 1450. The mounds, part of the Winterville society’s religious system, were the site of sacred structures and ceremonies. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Winterville people lived away from the mound center on family farms in scattered settlement districts throughout the Yazoo-Mississippi River Delta basin. Only a few of the highest-ranking tribal officials lived at the mound center.
The Winterville ceremonial center originally contained at least 23 mounds. Some of the mounds located outside the park boundaries have been leveled by highway construction and farming. Twelve of the site’s largest mounds, including the 55-foot-high Temple Mound, are currently the focus of a long-range preservation plan being developed by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and the University of Mississippi’s Center for Archaeological Research.
Archaeological evidence indicates that the Indians who used the Winterville Mounds may have had a civilization similar to that of the Natchez Indians, a Mississippi tribe documented by French explorers and settlers in the early 1700s. The Natchez Indians’ society was divided into upper and lower ranks, with a person’s social rank determined by heredity through the female line. The chief and other tribal officials inherited their positions as members of the royal family. The elaborate leadership network made mound building by a civilian labor force possible.
An explosion of mound construction activity between 1200 and 1350 AD suggests the Winterville chiefdom was a dominant power in the region then. Varieties of pottery indicate there was contact with far-distant chiefdoms.
The people who were responsible for these great earthworks were American Indians, but not Chickasaws, Choctaws, or other tribes we know today. Construction of the mounds at Winterville began about 1100 AD, a time when the population was organized in chiefdoms instead of tribes. Many of these chiefdoms were destroyed after the expedition of Hernando de Soto passed through in 1539–43, presumably by European diseases to which the native population had no immunity. The remnants of these groups banded together, creating the contemporary tribes.
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