The protohistoric period in central Alabama (ca. 1540-1686) represents a fundamental shift in the culture of Native American groups inhabiting the Alabama and Black Warrior River Valleys. The relationship of protohistoric groups to the people of the preceding Late Mississippian culture and their relationship with historically recognized Native American groups is poorly understood. Trends in both form and decoration of ceramic burial urns recovered from protohistoric sites were studied to address these issues. The results of a principle component analysis of vessel form and a matrix of similarity analysis of decorative motifs on these vessels suggest that protohistoric sites can be divided into three distinct cultural groupings. These groupings separate geographically based upon the locations of archaeological sites in the Black Warrior, middle Alabama, and upper Alabama River Valleys. Additional evidence compiled from published historic and linguistic research suggests that a portion of these protohistoric groups may be related to the Alibamo, who lived in central Alabama during the early historic era.
The decades immediately surrounding initial European contact in central Alabama are an archaeological dark age. During this period of nearly 150 years, the first Europeans entered into the area and documented their expeditions. Nevertheless, very little currently is understood about the Native American cultures of the protohistoric period. What is known is that by the time the first Europeans established permanent settlements in the area, the native populations were drastically different than they had been in prehistory.
In central Alabama, the darkest portion of the protohistoric period spans the years between the Hernando de Soto expedition of A.D. 1540 and the Marcos Delgado expedition of 1686. Unlike areas to the south and east, in the sixteenth and seventeenth century contact between the native groups in central Alabama and European colonists was sporadic; no European settlements were established in the region until 1717, when the French founded Ft. Toulouse at the junction of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers. Archaeologists working in this region possess a general understanding of the distribution of Late Mississippian populations and of the Native American groups contacted during the eighteenth century, but the cultural changes that occurred during the intervening protohistoric years are not well understood.
Archaeologists in the Southeast have noted a number of differences between protohistoric cultures and precontact Mississippian societies. The best recognized departures from Mississippian culture are (1) a decline in evidence of social hierarchy as reflected in burial goods and an end to public works projects like mound construction, (2) a shift from a tiered settlement hierarchy consisting of larger centers and smaller outlying hamlets to large nucleated villages, and (3) decreased dependence on maize agriculture as a source of subsistence (Schoeninger and Shurr 1998; Sheldon 1974; Welch 1998).
The characteristic that has defined the protohistoric cultures in central Alabama, rather than any of the above, is the practice of interring the dead in ceramic vessels employed as burial urns. In this region, urn burials typically consist of two vessels, a globular jar containing the human remains, over which a smaller bowl is inverted to serve as a lid (Figure 1). These urn burials most frequently contain the remains of infants, although some large vessels with the disarticulated remains of as many as four adults have been recovered. The assemblage of burial urns do not represent a specialized ware, but are utilitarian vessels that frequently show signs of their use in domestic contexts prior to being employed as mortuary containers (Sheldon 1974:53-54). Many of these urns have exterior sooting and basal wear, and scraping marks and residue on their interiors. While sites with burial urns of this type are most frequent in the Black Warrior and Alabama River Valleys, they have also been recovered as far south as the Mobile-Tensaw delta and as far west as the area of present-day Starkville, Mississippi. …