Poverty Point National Monument, Louisiana. Located in northeastern Louisiana, this park commemorates a culture that thrived during the first and second millennia B.C.
This site, which contains some of the largest prehistoric earth works in North America, is managed by the state of Louisiana and open to the public.
Poverty Point Site; a reconstruction drawing indicating houses situated
upon the six concentric man-made ridges as they abut the Bayou Maçon.
Placements are hypothetical. Mound A, the largest earthen construction
at Poverty Point, is centrally located behind the great ridges. Drawing by
John L. Gibson…. Timeline of Art History. Click and drag photo to resize.
The astounding complex of six octagonal ridges, 4,000 feet across, at Poverty Point, Louisiana, was not recognized until 1953, when aerial photographs were analyzed.
Roughly 3,000 years old, the ridges are intersected by avenues that seem to align with summer and winter solstice points as well as some more obscure astronomical azimuths. These alignments represent remarkable astronomical sophistication for the New World in 1,000 B.C.
(Anonymous; "Louisiana's 4,000-Foot Calendar," Science Digest, 90:22, July 1982.)
Science Frontiers Comment. An incredible amount of labor was expended in constructing the six, huge concentric ridges. Actually, sighting lines could have been built with just a few mounds or simple markers.
The Indians, if that is what they were, must have had something additional in mind to move all that dirt!
Let's not be condescending and say that the ridges were for "ritual purposes," when we really have no idea of their purpose. Note, too, that the better-known hilltop earthen forts in Britain possess similar openings in their walls, undermining any theories that they were purely defensive works....Science Frontiers Online
Why would anyone build mounds of earth 7 miles long?
In the case of Poverty Point, in northeastern Louisiana, no one knows for sure. In some states, like Ohio, Native American people built mounds as burial places.
Archaeologists suspect that the mounds at Poverty Point served as sites for dwellings, but they are not certain. Native American culture in the Poverty Point area began almost 4,000 years ago, and the mounds were built between 1350 and 1800 B.C.
Watson Break: About As Anomalous As Mounds Can Get
The title refers to a circle of 11 earthen mounds located new Monroe, Louisiana; the Watson Break site.
Local residents have known about the mounds for years, but archeologists weren't attracted to them until clear-cutting of the trees in the 1970s made the size and novelty of Watson Break all too obvious.
Just how anomalous is Watson Break? Archeologist V. Steponaitis, from the University of North Carolina, opined:
"It's rare that archaeologists ever find something that so totally changes our picture of what happened in the past, as is true for this case."
On what does Steponaitis base such a powerful statement?
1. Watson Break is dated at 5,0005,400 BP (Before Present), some three millennia before the well-known Moundbuilders started piling up earthen structures from the Mississippi Valley to New York State. In other words, the site is anomalously early.
2. Indications are that Watson Break was built by hunter-gatherers, but no one really knows much about them; there's an aura of mystery here.
3. Watson Break consists of 11 mounds -- some as high as a two-story house -- connected by a peculiar circular ridge 280 meters in diameter. The back-breaking labor required to collect and pile up all this dirt is incompatible with the life style of mobile bands of hunter-gatherers.
4. The purpose of the Watson Break complex escapes us. Why the mounds? Why the circular ridge? Can we just shrug it off as a "ritual site"?
(Saunders, Joe W., et al; "A Mound Complex in Louisiana at 5400-5000 Years before the Present," Science, 277:1796. Also: Pringle, Heather; "Oldest Mound Complex Found at Louisiana Site," Science, 277:1761, 1997. Also: Stanley, Dick; "Finds Alter View of American Indian Prehistory," Austin American Statesman, September 19, 1997. Cr. D. Phelps.)
Science Frontiers Online Comment: If you have been following the archeological news stories, you have seen at least three items destined to "revolutionize" the prehistory of the Americas:
(1) The Watson Break site; (2) The Monte Verde site (more than 12,500 years old, SF#112); (3) Kennewick Man (a Caucasian skeleton 9,300 years old in North America, Science Frontiers Online #109).
The mounds are six giant half-circles in the shape of a bull's-eye, almost three-fourths of a mile wide. If you straightened out the six mounds and laid them out end-to-end, they would stretch for 7 miles.
Archaeologists believe the 37-acre central plaza formed by the mounds may have been used for religious and other public ceremonies.
Although archaeologists have not found any articles of clothing from these ancient people, they have found jewelry. The great variety of this jewelry, from simple to elaborate, indicates that social status was important in the Poverty Point community.
Overall, Poverty Point presents evidence that ancient Americans lived in sophisticated communities. Even so, this does not help to solve the mystery of exactly what these mounds were.
Do you have any other ideas? ….. Library of Congress
For centuries, the Middle East has been considered the cradle of civilization. The acceptance of the 10 commandments on Mount Sinai…the great pyramids of Egypt…the laws of Hammurabi.
These are the legacies of Middle Eastern societies that flourished 2000 years before the birth of Christ.
Yet, scientists had little evidence that ancient American civilizations were capable of creating such grand works. The discovery of prehistoric earthworks in rural Louisiana has revolutionized historians’ view of the evolution of society in the New World.
Over the last 50 years, archeologists have explored and excavated numerous Louisiana earthwork sites. Located in northeastern Louisiana, the site at Poverty Point Plantation includes some of the largest American earthworks of the prehistoric period.
Jon Gibson, Ph.D., Archaeologist: "In the lower Ms. Valley there’s a long history of earthwork development that may last probably seven thousand years, maybe 6,500 years, and of all places in the United States this is the one area where the earthworks first came about.”
In the 1840s, Jacob Walters, an explorer traveling through the area looking for lead ore, first reported the presence of Native American artifacts on the Poverty Point site.
However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the discovery of a 20-year-old aerial photograph revealed the site’s unique form: Poverty Point contains a man-made earthen structure so large that it defies recognition from the ground. This revelation eventually lead scientists to uncover new evidence of a highly developed, ancient American culture.
For the last 40 years, the Poverty Point site has been carefully excavated by archeologists from all over the country. Piecing together all of the details of daily life in extinct cultures is not an exact science, but an interpretive art.
The inhabitants who built the site abandoned the area more than 3,300 years ago. While there are still unanswered questions, archeologists do know many things about where the people lived, what foods they ate and how they made tools.
Scientists’ findings are based on three major sources: the earthen ridges; the mounds; and, artifacts found at Poverty Point and at similar settlements in the lower Mississippi Valley. Based on artifacts, scientists also have begun to reconstruct the society’s organization and its government.
Between 1800 BC and 1350 BC, the people of Poverty Point inhabited a region of the lower Mississippi delta.
Roger Saucier, Geoscientist "I guess we’ll probably never know exactly why Poverty Point people settled exactly where they did. I have a feeling that that is probably largely a matter of socio-economics or perhaps a socio-political factor.
But obviously the Poverty Point peoples liked the margins of ridges like Macon Ridge. This has afforded them high ground relatively immune from flooding, with good airable soils and good locations for living conditions.
But perhaps more importantly, this enabled them to be immediately adjacent to these very rich bottomland forests and hardwood areas that are so abundant as far as plants and wildlife and fisheries are concerned.
At the heart of the Poverty Point site are the earthworks. One of the largest native constructions known in eastern North America, the Poverty Point earthworks are older than any other earthworks of this size in the western hemisphere.
A C-shaped figure dominates the center of the site. The figure is formed by 6 concentric artificial earth embankments. They are separated by ditches, or swales, where dirt was removed to build the ridges. The ends of the outermost ridge are 1,204 meters apart (nearly 3/4 of a mile). The ends of the interior embankment are 594 meters apart.
If the ridges were straightened and laid end to end, they would comprise an embankment 12 kilometers or 7 1/2 miles in length. Originally, the ridges stood 4 to 6 feet high and 140 to 200 feet apart.
Many years of plowing have reduced some to only one foot in height. Archeologists suspect that the homes of 500 to 1,000 inhabitants were located on these ridges.
Bob Connolly, Ph.D., Archaeologist: "The PP earthworks were originally constructed around 1800 years BC, but we know that they were not the first earthworks built by Native Americans in Louisiana.
For example, nearby to PP, a little bit west of Monroe, LA, the Watson Break earthworks were constructed as early as 3300 years BC.
What is important is that we begin to see this continuum of development in the earthwork construction from the time of Watson Break all the way up through European contact when, uh, for example at the Grand Village of the Natchez, the earthworks were still occupied by Native Americans and we actually have accounts, from the original European explorers in the region."
Mounds were still being constructed in Louisiana in the mid-1500s. During the 1800s some mounds in southern Louisiana were used for traditional religious activities. Today the mounds continue to be sacred and powerful places.
Poverty Point art. Click and drag photo to resize.
In the center of the Poverty Point earthworks is the plaza, a flat, open area covering about 15 hectares or 37 acres. Archeologists suspect the plaza was the site of ceremonies, rituals, dances, games and other public activities.
On the western side of the plaza, archeologists have found some unusually deep pits. One explanation is these holes once held huge wooden posts, which served as calendar markers. Using the sun’s shadows, the inhabitants could have predicted the changing of the seasons.
Also located within the plaza are Dunbar Mound and Sarah’s Mount. Evidence suggests Sarah’s Mount was constructed approximately 1,000 years after the decline of the Poverty Point culture.
Outside the ridged enclosure are five other mounds. Mound A and Motley Mound appear to many to be in the shape of a bird in flight.
Dennis LaBatt, Historic Site Manager: "Mound A…pretty impressive." (measurements and basket loads) "You know, if one is to see a bird...carefully laid out." "The bird mound…village area."
Motley Mound may be considered to be unfinished. There is only a small bulge where the bird’s tail should be. Scientists believe these mounds were used for special activities or as a gathering place for the elite.
Mound B is a domed mound 180 feet in diameter and 20 feet in height. Throughout the eastern United States, domed mounds were frequently used for burial. However, no burial sites have been excavated at Poverty Point.
Ballcourt Mound is a nearly square flat-topped mound about 100 meters or 300 feet to the side.
Lower Jackson Mound is estimated to be as much as 1,000 years older than other mounds at the site.