This Native American Society Was Once as Powerful as the Aztecs and Incas

March 12, 2021

The Spiros were once “the single most powerful group ever to exist” in North America. This groundbreaking new exhibit in Oklahoma shares their story.

Shell cups carved with mythical beings. Large effigy pipes. Beaded baskets. These are among the archaeologically significant objects excavated from the Spiro Mounds. Often overlooked, this Native American site in the midwestern U.S. is among the greatest sources of Mississippian Native American artifacts ever discovered.

Located on the Oklahoma and Arkansas border, the Spiro Mounds were part of a city complex populated from 800 to 1450 A.D. At its peak, it supported a population of some 10,000 people. The Mississippian political, trade, and religious confederation incorporated more than 60 different tribes and stretched from the Gulf Coast of Florida to the Great Lakes and from the Rockies to the Virginia coast.

The Spiro population, along with other Mississippian groups across eastern North America, was once equal to the Aztecs and Incas, yet despite its size and sophisticated trade society, its legacy is not well understood.

A groundbreaking exhibition aims to change this. Unveiled in February and running through May 9, “Spiro and the Art of the Mississippian World,” at Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, is the largest presentation on the Spiro Mounds ever undertaken by any museum.

The exhibition helps document “the single most powerful group ever to exist” in the U.S., according to Dennis Peterson, executive director of the Spiro Mounds Archeological Center.

“The people who lived [in Spiro] came to control what we call the Mississippian culture. So pretty much all the United States except for the far northeast and the far northwest, Spiro either had trade with, communication with or direct control over for over 350 years with almost no use of violent warfare,” he says.

The Spiro archeological discoveries give important insight into the culture of the ancient Mississippian people.

A treasure trove of culture

“What truly makes Spiro so unique is that not only is it the most object-laden mound ever discovered in North America, but it also included objects from around the known world [in North America],” says Eric Singleton, a National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum curator who spearheaded the new exhibit.

“There is copper from Lake Superior, engraved shell cups from the Florida Keys, beads from the Sea of Cortez, items from the Valley of Mexico, and those are just a few of the items,” continues Singleton. “They invited people from around the known world to bring their holy objects to Spiro to be ritualistically acted upon.”

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