Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 5, 2001 - Issue 35



Poverty Point


  A Rich Culture Flourished 12 Centuries Before Christ


Prepared by Jon L. Gibson
University of Southwestern Louisiana

Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism
Louisiana Archaeological Survey and Antiquities Commission


The time was eight centuries after Egyptian slaves dragged huge stones across the desert to build the Great Pyramids, and before the great Mayan pyramids were constructed. The place was a site in what is now northeastern Louisiana. The people were a highly civilized group who left behind one of the most important archaeological sites in North America.

The Poverty Point inhabitants, like the ancient Mayans, set for themselves an enormous task as they built a complex array of earthen mounds and ridges overlooking the Mississippi River flood plain. This accomplishment is particularly impressive for a pre-agricultural society. The central construction consists of six rows of concentric ridges, which at one time were five feet high. The five aisles and six sections of ridges form a partial octagon. The diameter of the outermost ridges measures three-quarters of a mile. It is thought that these ridges served as foundations for dwellings although little evidence of structures has been found. However, features and midden deposits uncovered during excavations support this theory.

Earthen mounds were also built on the site. Immediately to the west of the concentric ridges lies Poverty Point Mound, a spectacular bird-shaped mound measuring about 700 by 640 feet at its base and rising 70 feet into the sky. To the north is Mound "B," a 20-foot-high conical mound, which was constructed over a bed of ash and burnt bone fragments.

Poverty Point's inhabitants imported certain essential supplies from great distances. Projectile points and other stone tools found at Poverty Point were made from raw materials which originated in the Ouachita and Ozark Mountains and in the Ohio and Tennessee River valleys. Soapstone for vessels came from the Appalachian foothills of northern Alabama and Georgia. Other materials came from distant places in the eastern United States. The extensive trade network attests to the complex and sophisticated society that built the Poverty Point earthworks.

To prosper, an ancient culture had to be able to adapt to its environment. One adaptation of the Poverty Point people was made in the field of food preparation. Other peoples at this time used heated stones for stoneboiling liquids or in earth ovens or hearths as a method of cooking.

Because there were no stones at Poverty Point, the people ingeniously molded earthen balls for this purpose. Made by hand and hardened by firing, these balls were a perfect substitute for stones in the earth ovens. Thousands of the balls, in many shapes and designs, have been found at the site.

Many more fascinating details of the Poverty Point lifestyle are on exhibit for visitors to enjoy. A large number of beads of various shapes and sizes, including bird effigies, have been found at the site. There are also many small stone tools, called "microliths," which are unique to this culture.

Poverty Point is indeed a rare remnant of an exceptional culture. It has been estimated that it took at least five million hours of labor to build the massive earthworks. Considering that the laborers carried this dirt to the site in baskets of about a 50-pound capacity, it is obvious that this was a great communal engineering feat. The age, size and character of the Poverty Point earthworks clearly place them among the most significant finds in America today. Dated between 1700 and 700 B.C., this site of more than 400 acres is unique among archaeological sites on this continent. In 1962, Poverty Point was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior. An interpretive museum, special events, programs and guided tours including tram tours between Easter and Labor Day holidays highlight activities at the park.

For more information on the site, refer to Anthropological Study Series #7 -- Poverty Point: A Terminal Archaic Culture of the Lower Mississippi Valley -- prepared by the Louisiana Archaeological Survey and Antiquities Commission.

Poverty Point




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