The Hernando de Soto Expedition: History, Historiography, and "Discovery" in the Southeast

By Patricia Galloway | Go to book overview

Jay K. Johnson


From Chiefdom to Tribe in Northeast Mississippi: The Soto Expedition as a window on a Culture in Transition

The fourteenth through eighteenth centuries in the Southeast are an extremely interesting period from an anthropological perspective. Not only do they mark the transition from prehistory to history, thus allowing the possibility of checking archaeological conclusions using documentary sources and vice versa, but they are also a time of rapid culture change. Complex, centralized chiefdoms of the late prehistoric period became the more loosely organized tribes of the historic period. While there can be no doubt that some of this devolution can be attributed to the disruption caused by Soto and his army, it is also clear that at least some of the dramatic changes in social complexity preceded the period of first contact. This chapter reviews the archaeological and ethnohistorical data on sociopolitical devolution among the Chickasaws of northeast Mississippi to demonstrate the potential contribution of the evidence of the Soto narratives to both the specific history of one Southeastern tribe and to anthropological theory.


Cultural Evolution

Although cultural evolution was the central theme of anthropology for the first fifty years of its existence, most current considerations in archaeology can be traced to Marshall Sahlins's dissertation on social stratification in Polynesia.1 As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan and graduate student at Columbia University, Sahlins had been exposed to some of the major figures in the revival of interest in cultural evolution. To this background he added economic theory borrowed from Carl Polanyi, an adjunct at Columbia during the early 1950s. In relating the rise of centralized political control to the ecological and technological factors that favor redistribution, Sahlins produced an evolutionary model which had great appeal to archaeology, as it dealt with aspects of culture which could be measured using archaeological data.

However, it was not until 1962, when Elman Service incorporated many of

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