Between AD 900 and 1600 a series of stable and prosperous Native American cultures were centered on the major river valleys of the Midwest and Southeast. Collectively, scholars refer to these cultures and their material remains as Mississippian because the culture seems to have originated along the Mississippi River valley. The fertile river valleys of Alabama's Black Belt provided an ideal environment for Mississippian communities to develop. It was in these river valleys that towns were established.
Before Europeans first passed through the region in the sixteenth century, the Black Belt already possessed a distinctive landscape, filled with unique flora and fauna. The biological landscape was thousands of years old and had been developing since the end of the last ice age, some 13,000 years before. The Alabama Black Belt was not an unbroken prairie or forest as popularly supposed, but was a mosaic of environments shaped by soil type, available moisture, rivers and fire.
The Black Belt is blessed with two great river systems, the Alabama and the Tombigbee. The Alabama River flows west along the northern rim of the region until it is joined in Dallas County by the Cahaba River which originates in the mountains near Birmingham. The Alabama River then turns south and cuts through the Black Belt. Impressive white bluffs are often visible where the rivers cut through the Selma chalk that underlies the Black Belt prairies, but when the Alabama enters the Coastal Plain, its current slows and its channel widens.