Poverty Point Culture Builds Earthworks Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The prehistoric, hunter-gatherer Poverty Point culture created the largest and some of the oldest earthworks found in North America, with trade routes extending from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

Summary of Event

Archaeologists’ findings since the 1950’s indicate that the Poverty Point culture was an evolutionary milestone in the American hemisphere. This Native American culture was once thought to be an agricultural society that began about 1730 b.c.e. and became extinct in 1350 b.c.e. Carbon dating of artifacts and other archaeological findings have revealed that Poverty Point was a highly organized hunter-gatherer society that existed from 1800 b.c.e. until 700 b.c.e., and that the society’s trade routes extended throughout the eastern half of North America. Historians now believe that the Choctaw, Creek, Shawnee, and Natchez Native Americans have ancestral roots in the Poverty Point civilization.

The first report of artifacts on the Poverty Point site, located west of the Mississippi River on Bayou Macon near the present-day town of Epps in northeastern Louisiana, was that of explorer Jacob Walters about 1840. More than a hundred years later, the discovery of an aerial photograph showing the unusual size and geometric pattern of the massive earthworks on Macon Ridge sparked intense interest in investigating the ancient culture. In the 1950’s, archaeologists James Ford and Stuart Neitzel of the American Museum of Natural History began excavating the site. They were followed by others, who have attempted to reconstruct the culture’s economic and social organization by comparing it with the earthworks and artifacts of other settlements in the Lower Mississippi Valley.

Archaeologist Jon L. Gibson and contemporary scientists now believe that Poverty Point was a huge commercial center for hunter-gatherers who found plentiful food for the sustenance of a large population in the environment of Bayou Macon. Some believe that several thousand people lived at the central site and that other Poverty Point people occupied dozens of small villages and hunting camps along the streams and old river channels that radiated out 25 miles (15.5 kilometers) from the central earthworks. Other archaeologists point to the lack of burial mounds and theorize that Poverty Point was a huge common campground used for ceremonial purposes and trade fairs. However, agricultural use and plowing over the past two hundred years have erased much of the evidence usually relied on by archaeologists to determine house types and burial practices. The huge earthworks and the multitude of artifacts found at the site indicate a long-term permanent occupation.

The earthworks dominating the central site were constructed in the shape of six concentric half-hexagons or C-shaped earthen embankments, 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 2 meters) high and 140 to 200 feet (43 to 61 meters) apart. Ditches made by earth removal separate the embankments or ridges lengthwise. If laid end to end, the earthworks would extend for 7.5 miles (12 kilometers). The embankments consist of six unequal sections separated by five straight aisles ranging from 35 to 160 feet (10 to 49 meters) wide. The aisles may have been boundaries between social and functional areas, astronomical sighting lines, or simply functional aids for the builders to achieve the half-oval design. Parallel to the southwest aisle is an extra ridge—the Causeway—that bisects the outer concentric ridges and extends 300 feet (91 meters) beyond the enclosure, ending near an outer mound called Ballcourt Mound.

At the center of the concentric ridges is a flat, open area covering about 37 acres (15 hectares). Archaeologists suppose this open plaza was used for ceremonies, dances, games, and other public activities. The large number of religious fetishes and charms found at the site indicate that ritual and religion were major forces in the culture. Deep holes on the western side of the plaza suggest the use of huge wooden posts that may have served as calendar markers, casting shadows that enabled people to predict equinoxes or solstices, analogous to the theorized purpose of the British megalithic monument of Stonehenge, which had just reached its final form around this time.

West of the outer ridge, additional earthworks are positioned along a precise north-south line. Mound A, shaped like a huge flying bird, measures 640 feet (195 meters) along the wingspread, 710 feet (216 meters) from head to tail, and 70 feet (21 meters) high. The tail section lies in a depression 12 feet (3.7 meters) deep. Mound B, situated about 0.4 miles (0.6 kilometers) north of Mound A, is 180 feet (33 meters) in diameter and 20 feet (6 meters) high. About 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) north is Motley Mound, a second bird-shaped mound considered unfinished because it has only a slight bulge to indicate the bird’s tail.

Situated about 600 feet (183 meters) south of Mound A is the flat-topped Ballcourt Mound, measuring 100 feet (30 meters) square. Initially, archaeologists thought this mound was a natural knoll that had been shaped to a square, but recent findings indicate that it is entirely artificial, as are all the other mounds. There is no evidence that it was ever used as a ball court. About 1.6 miles (2.6 kilometers) south of Ballcourt Mound, on the same north-south line, lies a second domed mound called the Lower Jackson Mound. Though the Jackson Mound predates the other mounds by at least a thousand years, archaeologists assume a linkage to Poverty Point because there is evidence of a similar C-shaped earthen embankment on the Jackson Place, incorporating mounds inside and outside the enclosure.

Archaeological evidence is convincing that Poverty Point was a major trading center. Occupants of the central site traveled by canoe on the waterways of the Mississippi River system to establish a trading network with other cultures in the Appalachians, the Great Lakes, and in the Ohio, Tennessee, and lower Mississippi River Valleys. Poverty Point’s major trade imports were rocks and minerals, including hematite, magnetite, quartz, sandstone, soapstone, various cherts, and copper. From these materials, the Poverty Point people made a variety of polished tools, pipes, ornaments, fetishes and effigies, buttons, and beads—objects they could use in trade with other groups in the Mississippi Valley.

Tools found on the Poverty Point site show that the hunters used stone-tipped spears thrown with atlatls (spear-throwers) to add distance and power. Poverty Point hunters made atlatl weights in varying sizes and shapes, often engraving them with decorations. Stone plummets shaped like plumb bobs and teardrops apparently were used as weights for fishing nets. Game, fish, edible plants, and nuts abounded in the woodlands and streams around the high bluff at the central site. The main source of meat was fish, but other meat sources were wild turkey, ducks, and geese, along with deer, rabbits, squirrels, racoons, opossums, and even reptiles. Wild persimmons, grapes, hackberries, and various nuts and seeds supplemented the diet of the inhabitants. Because rocks and stones had to be imported, the Poverty Point people used clay cooking balls—heated objects placed directly in the pot to cook its contents—using the size and shape of the balls to control the cooking time.

Significance

Discovery and excavation of the prehistoric earthworks at Poverty Point have caused archaeologists and historians to rethink their ideas of ancient civilizations. The Poverty Point culture in northeastern Louisiana flourished at the same time as the Minoan civilization, the rise in Babylon of the law-giving King Hammurabi, and the rule of Akhenaton and Queen Nefertiti in Egypt. The leaders in the Poverty Point culture who wielded political and religious power must have had advanced knowledge and capabilities to plan, construct, inhabit, and maintain such grand earthworks over hundreds of years. The Poverty Point people have left a legacy of magnificent accomplishments in both earthworks construction and commercial networking that modern scientists are still seeking to understand and preserve. Poverty Point is one of three World Heritage Archaeological Sites north of Mexico. The character, size, and age of the 400 acre (162 hectare) site is unique on the North American continent, and its influence can be seen in mound-building Native American cultures encountered by the Europeans who entered the Lower Mississippi Valley in the 1500’s to 1700’s c.e.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Byrd, Kathleen, ed. The Poverty Point Culture, Local Manifestations, Subsistence Practices, and Trade Networks. Geoscience and Man, Vol. 29. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991. Contains new interpretations of Poverty Point cultural practices based on discoveries of artifacts and excavations of earthworks. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Byrd, Kathleen, ed. Recent Research at the Poverty Point Site. Louisiana Archaeology Studies, No. 13. Lafayette: Louisiana Archaeological Society, 1986. Presents new information on Poverty Point culture from excavations in the 1980’s. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibson, Jon L. Poverty Point: A Terminal Archaic Culture of the Lower Mississippi Valley. 2d ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana Division of Archaeology, 1999. State archaeologist’s updated overview of earthworks, artifacts, foodways, and cultural practices of Poverty Point people. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibson, Jon L. “The Poverty Point Earthworks Reconsidered.” Mississippi Archaeology 22, no. 2 (1987): 14-31. Places Poverty Point in context with other mound builders such as the Mississippi and Hopewell cultures. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibson, Jon L., ed. Exchange in the Lower Mississippi Valley and Contiguous Areas at 1100 b.c. Lafayette: Louisiana Archaeological Society, 1994. Traces trading routes and interaction between Poverty Point and other Indian tribes. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, H. Edwin. “The Trade Fair in Hunter-Gatherer Interaction: The Role of Intersocietal Trade in the Evolution of Poverty Point Culture.” In Between Bands and Stones, edited by Susan A. Gregg. Occasional Paper No. 9, Center for Archaeological Investigations. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 1991. Focuses on development and range of influence of Poverty Point as a trading center. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Webb, Clarence H. “The Extent and Content of Poverty Point Culture.” American Antiquity 33 (1968): 297-321. Report of amateur archaeologist who assisted with excavations and analysis of artifacts recovered from site. Bibliography.

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