Quick! What do the pyramids in Egypt, the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru, the Taj Mahal in India, the Great Wall in China and the earthen mounds at Poverty Point, Louisiana have in common? They are all recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites — natural and cultural sites of outstanding universal value, which means they are important to the whole of humanity and should be protected for present and future generations.
What is Poverty Point? It’s one of the most amazing native-American earthworks in the Western Hemisphere, and also among the oldest. Its discovery has altered the way historians view the evolution of society in the New World.
Before its discovery the Middle East was considered the cradle of civilization. But at nearly the same time as the pyramids were being built in Egypt, people in the New World were building cities, establishing trade routes that crossed thousands of miles and creating a complex society in an age that predated agriculture. Hunter-gatherers were leaving their mark on history in a spectacular fashion.
I’d never heard of Poverty Point until a few years ago when someone mentioned it in passing. But that name! It’s kind of wonderful, isn’t it? It sounds like the name of a scary movie. Cape Fear. Poverty Point. And so my first question on arrival was to ask about the name.
Situated in northeastern Louisiana a few miles outside the town of Delhi along the banks of Bayou Maçon, it was named after Poverty Point Plantation, a 19th century farm that belonged to Phillip Guier who settled in northeast Louisiana in 1832 with his wife, Sarah. He acquired the land in 1843 and in 1851, the plantation became known as Poverty Point or Hard Times Plantation.
“Mr. Guier moved down here from Kentucky,” said David Griffing, Poverty Point Site Supervisor. “There was actually a place up in Kentucky called Poverty Point,” he continued, “and we think maybe he named it that to make his wife feel more at home.”
Archaeologist Jessica Crawford added, “Yes. He brings her to this place out in the middle of nowhere and says, “Welcome home, honey!”
We all laughed. I couldn’t help but think of Jack Nicholson in Stephen King’s The Shining, a frightful smile on his face. “Honey! I’m home!”
While the mounds and artifacts were well known, it wasn’t until 1953 when the discovery of a 20-year-old aerial photograph revealed six concentric ridges in the shape of semicircles around an open plaza that people realized what a treasure lay there. The man-made structure is so large it defies recognition from the ground. This new information revealed evidence of a highly developed, ancient American culture.
The site consists of six earthen mounds as well as six enormous, nested, C-shaped ridges and a large, flat interior plaza that likely contained big circles of wooden posts. No other site has a similar design.
Prior to the discovery of the photograph, the land had been farmed from the 1840s all the way into the 1970s, and plowing had leveled the ridges to only about a foot in height, but at one time they were between four and six feet high and about 140 to 200 feet apart. The semicircles measure a distance nearly three quarters of a mile. Straightened out, they would stretch for seven miles.
The ridges served as living space with huts along the top where people lived and manufactured tools and prepared food. Though the population likely varied seasonally, it is thought that it held from several hundred to as many as 4,000 people, year-round for as many as 600 years.
At the center of the site is a plaza that covers about 37 acres. It is believed it was used for ceremonies, rituals, dances, games and other activities. On the western side of the plaza, archeologists have discovered several deep holes in circles of various sizes, which they believe held long poles, possibly serving as calendar markers. Also located within the plaza are Dunbar Mound and Sarah’s Mound, named after Sarah Guier, who is buried in it. Evidence suggests that Sarah’s Mound was constructed about 1,000 years after the decline of the Poverty Point culture.
Outside the Ridge enclosure are five other mounds. “The mounds probably served a variety of purposes,” said Don L. Gibson, Ph.D. “But their form and their particular location suggest that they were part of the protection system the Indians had set up to protect their way of life.
“They’ve got six mounds that form a square or at least a partial square,” he said. “They’ve got six rings that form a semi-circle so they looked like there were two methods of using some insurance to protect their activities inside. Southeastern Indians believed that geometry is the main protection against outside evil.”
Scientists believe the mounds were used for special activities or as gathering places for the elite.
A tram tour gives visitors a relaxing way to view the entire site, which, if hiked, is about two miles long. For the last day in August, the weather was unseasonably cool with an overcast sky — perfect for enjoying a ride narrated by our extremely knowledgeable guide, Park Ranger Cleon Crockett.
The largest — Mound A or “The Bird Mound” — is believed to be an effigy mound constructed in the shape of bird in flight, flying due West. Today it is 72 feet high, and 600 by 800 feet wide. Before 3,000 years of erosion, however, this mound was probably over 100 feet tall.
It was built entirely by hand by hunter-gatherers without the advantage of domesticated pack animals. This amounts to over 300,000 cubic yards of dirt, carried in well over 15.5 million 50-pound baskets from the borrow pit behind it. That would amount to about 18,000 dump truckloads of dirt.
And the most amazing thing of all? Archeologists believe that Mound A was built from within 30 to 90 days. Core samples taken from the mound showed no evidence of grass or vegetation sprouting within the mound nor was there evidence of leaching from rainfall within the mound or any residue left from earthworms, grubs, molds or any other boring animals. That meant that the mound was built in one continuous episode over a very short period of time, during one season.
Riding around to the rear of Mound A, we emerged from a copse of woods to an open field. Ranger Crockett pointed across to the edge of the woods.
“There’s a black bear, right across over there. See him? I can see him.”
As the bear lumbered quickly back into the shelter of the woods, I thought about the hunter-gatherers who found game so plentiful here. I imagined an Indian wrapped up warmly in a bearskin cloak during the cold winter months. No remains of clothing have ever been found, so what they wore is anyone’s guess.
Although no one knows exactly why the Poverty Point people settled exactly where they did, they obviously liked the margins of the ridges like Maçon Ridge. This afforded them high ground, which kept the site dry during seasonal flooding and afforded good living conditions adjacent to very rich bottomland forest, abundant with plants and wildlife and fisheries.
Mound B is a domed mound. Although domed mounds were often used for burial, no excavations from Poverty Point have revealed burial sites. Mound E is a large, flat, square-shaped mound. Offsite sits Lower Jackson mound, which is privately owned and is about 1,300 years older than Mound A. Mounds A, E, B and lower Jackson form a straight line that runs due north and south. It is believed that the Poverty Point people purposely aligned the later mounds with the lower Jackson mound to form that north-south line.
“In terms of the artifacts, Poverty Point probably contains just about every kind of artifact that was made by the archaic peoples in the eastern United States. It also has some artifacts that were not made by the general southeastern peoples or other eastern peoples,” said Dr. Gibson.
Besides the enormous earthworks and mounds, another hallmark of the Poverty Point culture is long-distance trade. The later cultures didn’t build the large mounds.
“The other difference is the trade was not nearly as extensive as it was during the heyday of the Poverty Point occupation,” said archeologist Robert Connolly, Ph.D.
Since there were no local stones on the Macon Ridge, rocks were major trade goods. They acquired stones from the Ouachita, Ozark and Appalachian mountains. Even copper from the Great Lakes 1,400 miles away.
“Rivers were almost certainly used in bringing in the trade materials because we’re talking about such a massive volume of material. In fact, we’ve estimated over 71 metric tons of foreign flint occurs on the Poverty Point site,” said Dr. Gibson.
The predominance of fish and reptile bones at the site suggest most of their food came from slow-moving water. Indeed, archeologists have discovered what at one time was a large lake where only farmland remains today.
Fishermen may have used cast and gill fishing nets weighted with plummets to cast out for the fish.
“You really don’t have to angle to catch fish. You can set out traps,” said Gibson.
These traps did the work for them while they did other things such as making tools or hunting.
“It put an awful lot of food in their larders.”
Other game was also plentiful, including rabbit, deer, ducks, geese, turkeys, etc. Spears, arrowheads, cooking balls, tools, pottery, beads, ornaments, effigies, etc. have been found in abundance at Poverty Point. Many of these items indicate that there was a social structure in the culture, which differentiated the important from the common person. A visit to the main museum at the site is an eye opener to the civilization that had heretofore gone unnoticed.
Poverty Point is only the 22nd World Heritage Site in the US.
“This is a huge win for Louisiana,” said Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne. ““The World Heritage designation solidifies Poverty Point as one of the world’s greatest archaeological treasures.”
Poverty Point State Historic Site is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $4 and provides access to the area museum, video and seasonal tram tour. Children under 12 and senior citizens are admitted free. Poverty Point is located in West Carroll Parish, east of Monroe, on La. 577. For more information, visit www.LaStateParks.com or call 888.926.5492.