Prehistoric Caddo

aka: Caddo, Prehistoric

Prehistoric Caddo culture developed as a regional variant of the Mississippian tradition in southwest Arkansas and in parts of Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas between AD 800 and 1100. The characteristics that archaeologists use to identify this prehistoric culture include pottery containers with new shapes and decorations, flat-topped mounds used as platforms for buildings, conical mounds erected over dismantled buildings that occasionally were used as burial sites, new burial practices, new settlement practices, and new subsistence practices. Parallels between some of these features and European descriptions of the historic Caddo who lived in the same large region in the 1600s and 1700s indicate that the prehistoric Caddo were ancestors of the modern Caddo Nation.

In Arkansas, Caddo culture developed among local Woodland tradition people known as Fourche Maline. Some changes undoubtedly were inspired by innovative cultural practices in the Plum Bayou culture of central Arkansas and cultural changes in the lower Mississippi River Valley. But how and why Caddo culture developed is imperfectly understood and a matter of debate among archaeologists. These changes occurred throughout a large region, the western extent of the deciduous forest ecosystem, ranging from the Arkansas River Valley and adjoining uplands to the oak and grass savanna of east Texas.

The earliest signs of culture change are mound centers where elaborate funeral activities for select members of society and other religious and social activities took place. The largest of these centers include the Crenshaw, Bowman, and Mounds Plantation sites in the Red River valley, the George C. Davis Site in east Texas, and the Spiro Site in the Arkansas River Valley near Fort Smith (Sebastian County). From AD 900 to 1200, important people were interred, sometimes in mounds, with objects that included personal possessions, rare and exotic gifts, and symbols of religious and political authority.

At the Crenshaw Site, funeral activities included a variety of programs. Some people were buried in mounds, others were buried in large communal graves, and still others underwent extended treatment that led to the specialized burial of skulls and mandibles. Different funeral practices took place at early Caddo mound centers elsewhere in the region, although the skull and mandible burials are unique. These elaborate practices demonstrate that social differences marked special privileges and roles for some members of early Caddo society. Funeral rites are displays of new religious beliefs and rituals that continue as core elements of the Caddo culture.

During this time, the Caddo were making a transition to a farming lifestyle based on corn and other domesticated plants. In 1000, subsistence was based on hunting, gathering wild plants, and probably small-scale gardening of a few crops that included squashes and a few seed-producing native annuals. By 1200, corn was an integral part of the diet and, in combination with domesticated beans, sunflowers, and other plants, remained the foundation of Caddo subsistence into the historic period. Wild plants and animals also continued to be important to a diverse and healthy diet. The Caddo grew tobacco and probably other plants for medicine and rituals.

The transition to farming coincided with a dispersal of people into residential settlements by 1200. These year-round settlements had sturdy houses, outdoor work areas and storage facilities, small family cemetery plots, and gardens. One common house form was a large, circular dwelling, typically about thirty feet in diameter, made of saplings and thatched with grass. The Caddo also built square and rectangular buildings that had steeply pitched, thatched roofs supported by ridgepoles. Both kinds of buildings were furnished with raised beds or benches around the walls and probably with storage lofts or shelves. Central fireplaces provided some heat and light. Each dwelling had a single door and evidently no windows, and most daytime activities took place outside. Thousands of these small settlements were dispersed among all the stream valleys in southwest Arkansas, with no concentrated center.

Caddo farmers used simple digging tools made of wood, bone, or shell to cultivate gardens. Harvests were stored above ground in storehouses, in containers in their dwellings, and in some instances in pits. Bows and arrows—and probably other implements such as nets, snares, fishhooks, lines, and woven fish weirs—were used to capture game. Cane was split and woven into mats to furnish houses and into baskets to collect and store food. They used animal shells, skins, bones, and sinew to make clothes, blankets, and other items.

The prehistoric Caddo were skilled potters. Containers included jars, bottles, and bowls in many sizes and shapes. Both fine wares (highly polished and elaborately incised and engraved) and utilitarian wares (decorated by punctuation, incising, and brushing) were abundant. Ceramic designs were often complex and featured geometric patterns. Subtle differences in vessel shape and the selection and arrangement of designs made the vessels produced in each Caddo community different from those produced by its neighbors. Caddo pottery had many uses. Some vessels were cooking, serving, and storage containers. Others seem to have been made for use in rituals, in public feasts and other gatherings, and as gifts for both the living and the dead.

In addition to farming, foraging, and other domestic activities, the prehistoric Caddo made salt. Salt making began about 1200, coinciding with the dominance of corn in the diet. Many brine seeps in southwest Arkansas were strong enough to provide salt from boiling by using simple technology. Brine was boiled over open fireplaces in large, thick pottery pans and platters. Large utilitarian jars evidently were used to dry and store the salt at the manufacturing site and later were broken and left scattered around the salt works. The prehistoric Caddo were part-time salt makers; people who lived near the brine locations made salt at family compounds when they were not farming, hunting, and performing household duties. The best-known salt works are in the Ouachita River valley near Arkadelphia (Clark County) and in the Little River and Rolling Fork River valleys in southwest Arkansas.

There are indications that some commodities, probably including salt, were being traded beyond the Caddo area into the Arkansas River Valley in central and eastern Arkansas around 1540. Pottery made in the Ouachita River valley Caddo communities has been found along the Arkansas River and near the confluence of Bayou Bartholomew and the Ouachita River in northern Louisiana. These locations appear to trace a river route between the Ouachita valley salt works and the Mississippian communities in the Arkansas River Valley. Around 1700, French explorers encountered Native American traders similarly moving boatloads of salt to villages in central Louisiana.

From 1400 to 1500, many changes took place in prehistoric Caddo culture. The most obvious evidence of change is the cessation of elaborate, highly ceremonial burials of certain people with lavish gifts and exotic possessions—including servant sacrifices—in mound centers. In some river valleys, mound building ceased altogether, and while it continued in other places such as the Red River valley, mound groups typically thereafter consisted of an earthen platform with a modest assortment of associated buildings and one small dome-shaped mound. New pottery designs and vessel shapes were created, and other objects such as arrow points also changed. Archaeologists speculate that these changes were part of new or different cultural beliefs and practices regarding Caddo social organization and religious practices, but the exact reasons are unknown. Some members of Caddo society were still wealthier and more influential than others, but the differences were not marked by the same level of exaggerated burial ceremonialism as before.

The Spanish members of the Hernando de Soto expedition found vibrant Caddo communities in southwest Arkansas and eastern Texas in the 1540s. The Caddo survived their encounter with the expedition and continued to live in southwest Arkansas with their cultural traditions intact until the next phase of European contact. In the last century before French settlers established the Louisiana colony, Caddo society was intact. Some communities were still building and using mounds; other traditions such as pottery making were at their most sophisticated and successful. In the Ouachita River valley, Caddo farmers were making salt up to 1700, when they migrated south out of the valley. The Kadohadacho Caddo and their neighbors along the Red River continued to live in their traditional villages near Texarkana (Miller County) until 1790.

For additional information:
Early, Ann M. “Finding the Middle Passage: The Spanish Journey from the Swamplands to Caddo Country.” In The Expedition of Hernando de Soto West of the Mississippi, 1541-1543, edited by Gloria A. Young and Michael P. Hoffman. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993.

———. “Prehistory of the Western Interior After 500 B.C.” In Handbook of American Indians. Vol. 14, Southeast, edited by William C. Sturtevant and Raymond D. Fogelson. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2004.

Lockhart, Jami Joe. “Prehistoric Caddo of Arkansas: A Multiscalar Examination of Past Cultural Landscapes.” PhD diss., University of Arkansas, 2007.

Perttula, Timothhy K., and Chester P. Walker, eds. The Archaeology of the Caddo. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012. 

Ann M. Early
Arkansas Archeological Survey


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