Isolated on a small, backwater bayou in the boondocks of northeastern Louisiana, Poverty Point is probably one of the most important ancient Native American sites that people have never heard of. But don’t be deceived by it’s obscurity. The US National Park Service called this 3,400 year-old site “the largest and most complex Late Archaic earthwork occupation and ceremonial site yet found in North America.”
UNESCO awarded it the prestigious designation of World Heritage Site, and the Louisiana Division of Archaeology established its global significance:
“No other hunting and gathering society made mounds at this scale anywhere else in the world.”
Poverty Point is not only unique for its earthworks and artifacts, but also for its culture and lifestyle. At a time when most other indigenous Americans lived in small, mobile hunter-gatherer bands, the people at Poverty Point lived year-round in a large, well-established community.
Named after the 19th Century plantation located there, the area was known to be a Native American site as early as the mid-1800s. But in the early 1900s, professional archaeologists moved in and research began in earnest – and scientific work continues to this day.
So far these extensive excavations have found one very large mound, four smaller mounds, a series of concentric, C-shaped ridges facing a central plaza as well as hundreds of artifacts.
There were no written records found which leaves lots of room for professional guesswork about the day-to-day lives of the inhabitants and the purpose of the mysterious mounds. But most archaeologists agree that it was a ceremonial center which was once home to hundreds or perhaps thousands of people who fished, hunted, and foraged for food, and traded extensively with other groups of Native Americans both near and far.
The small but impressive Visitor Center is chock-full of artifacts that provide details about the culture and how they lived. The extensive collection includes arrowheads (Over 8,000 were found!), clay figurines, unusual rocks and precious minerals from as far away as 800 miles, and small clay balls of various shapes called “cooking balls” which were heated in an open fire, and then ingeniously used to cook leaf-wrapped food.
Archaeologists have explored the site year after year, and many important discoveries have been made, but equally important to the scientists was what was not found: burial mounds or evidence of farming.
Burial mounds were a common Native American custom in the southeastern and central US so the absence of human remains is a mystery. The built-by-hand mounds were an enormous project and obviously important. It’s been estimated that the large mound at Poverty Point required digging and moving, over 15 million baskets of earth! So if not for burials, what was their purpose?
Equally mysterious is the lack of agriculture in a complex community of this size. For decades archaeologists thought that the construction of large-scale earthworks required cultures that had domesticated crops and farming techniques that could grow enough food for all the workers. Hunting and foraging just wasn’t enough. So the natural evolutionary progression was that hunter-gatherers were constantly on the move until they settled down, started farming, and grew surplus food. Poverty Point’s non-farming, hunter-gatherers put an end to this idea.
Let’s be honest; visiting most Native American sites isn’t like a trip to the Pyramids of Giza or the The Parthenon in Athens. You’ll be seeing grassy mounds of various sizes and in many cases a small visitors center. But what makes visiting worthwhile is walking in the footsteps of some of the first Americans, and seeing with your own eyes the magnitude of what they accomplished … strictly by hand.
I’ve said it before, but in the case of Poverty Point it bears repeating. Many Americans have been lucky to be able to visit ancient sites around the world, but we sometimes forget that North America has its own deep, rich human history. And just because these early cultures didn’t leave behind long-lasting ruins doesn’t mean they were any less advanced or fascinating.
This ancient culture and their home at Poverty Point represents an important turning point in human history, and you won’t be sorry you took the time to search it out.
James & Terri
P.S. Louisiana Public Broadcasting produced a well-done, 22-minute video on Poverty Point and it’s been uploaded to Youtube.
Photo Credits: 1. Louisiana State Exhibit Museum 2. Park Ranger John 3. National Park Planner 4. Louisiana Public Broadcasting 6. Susan Guice
Thanks. Perhaps one day. 🤔 But then, there are large mounds near our home in Ohio we have yet to visit in our two years here.
I could not agree more. When we lived in D.C., there were many there and in NYC who had been to Paris, Rome and London but had never seen any of the U.S., let alone seen all that can be found in small towns and places across the country.
Ray, I must admit that I’ve been guilty of this in the past, but if there’s any silver lining to the pandemic it’s that it forced me to look closer to home for interesting travel options. And one of my discoveries was all the Ohio mounds that you mention. It takes a bit of research to appreciate many of these sites, but it’s well worth the effort. ~James
I have never heard of this, and it is fascinating!
Fascinating is the perfect word Beth. Like many of these off-the-path places Poverty Point takes effort to get to but it’s certainly worth the effort. ~James
This would be an amazing site to visit. Do they take school children there on day trips? t would be better than any history book. All the best for a wonderful 2023 for both of you.
Darlene, you probably didn’t notice the caption, but on one of the mound photos there is a tiny “bristle” of people at the very top, which happens to be a school class. This place is perfect for kids because they can get outside to burn off some energy and the visitor center exhibit is detailed enough to be very informative, but small enough to not get boring. I loved discovering this place.
Best wishes for a fun 2023. ~James
Oh yes, I see it now. My eyes aren’t as good as they used to be. (they were never very good actually) I thought it would be the perfect school visit. Take care!
To think we lived in Louisiana for 4.5 years, but never heard of this site. We DID go to an indigenous Indian ‘open day’, and saw wonderful fine basket weaving, but it was clear that much of the tribe’s culture has been lost. ..Such a pity the way ultimate greed decimated the Native Americans, who initially offered peace and help to settlers struggling to cope in a new, strange land…
Jackie Usher, UK.
Jackie, don’t beat yourself up too badly. As I said in the post, Poverty Point is fairly obscure. And frankly, after visiting and doing my research for the post, I’m surprised that it isn’t more well known. I mean after all, questions about hunter-gatherer/farmer Americans is a pretty important scientific issue. (Oops! I slipped on my nerd hat there for a moment.)
One concept that I omitted from the post, that you’ll be able to relate to as a previous resident, is what a bountiful area this is for game and native plants. And I’m sure this is one of the primary reasons the indigenous people were able to survive quite comfortably by hunting, fishing, and foraging. ~James
First, a bit of amusement for you. I just spent a half-hour searching for the person who’d previously posted about this site, making me aware of it. Of course it was you, in a comment on one of my posts. Sigh.
This additional information’s fascinating. I’ve been pondering what could serve as a year-long project now that my Walden West series is done, and Louisiana has suggested itself. A visit to this place, satisfying on its own, would certainly fit into that theme. While the Cajun country/culture’s my first love, there are other fascinating places in the northern/Creole part of the state that would make for interesting travel.
The clay cooking balls intrigued me. Using hot rocks for cooking is fairly well-known, but it may be that the right kind of rocks weren’t available to the people there. So many unanswered questions. That last photo of the mound reminded me of a conversation I had while traveling through the Kansas prairies. I’d stopped for breakfast, and began talking with a fellow who was a life-long resident. He told me to watch as I traveled for slight rises in the Flint Hills landscape and prairies where unbroken sod still remained. As pioneers traveled, of course some would fall ill and die. They were buried where they fell, and evidence of those early settlers still remains, just as the tracks of their wagons still can be seen on the trails.
Linda, we love comments on our posts, and yours are always some of the most interesting and entertaining. Thanks for that. As for your idea on a series, I can imagine that Louisiana with its gumbo of cultures, history, and colorful characters would be fertile ground indeed. Terri and I moved to NOLA right after university, and it created a warm spot in our hearts that we carry to this day.
It’s interesting that you picked up on the cooking balls. I didn’t spend much time on it, but there’s an entire science to the technique. Apparently, the size and shape of the cooking ball determined the intensity of the heat, which cooks would vary depending on what was being cooked. Round balls had a different temperature profile than balls with indentations carved in them. FYI, there was a poster in the visitor center specifically about the use of cooking balls and if you’re interested, I can email a copy of the photo. Just let me know. And thanks again for the informative comment. ~James
This is absolutely fascinating James. Too often we neglect to seek out what might be in our own countries, instead venturing far and abroad to learn about the history of lands far away. A good healthy mix of both would be a lovely balance! Happy 2023!
A good healthy mix … well said Lynn. As I said to another commenter, I’ve been guilty of this myself in the past, but the recent travel restrictions have inspired me to look closer to home. And in fact, you’ll continue to see my discoveries showing up on the blog. I hope things are going well for you and that you have a happy, healthy 2023. ~James
Looking so forward to reading about your discoveries.
A very intriguing ancient site, indeed, especially since this was created by hunter-gatherers! Places like Poverty Point remind us that there are so many things we don’t know about the world — bless those archaeologists for having the patience and curiosity to study traces of our ancestors, however small and faded.
Bama, as you understand, for our knowledge of human history this site is quite a big deal. It’s concrete evidence of humans progressing from roaming bands to sedentary city dwellers without the benefit of farming, and the scale of the site leaves not doubt. It was exciting to see proof in person. ~James
Like many others, I’d never heard of this. It reminds me that there is SOOO much we do not know … about anything, near or far. It’s daunting, but as a lifelong “learner,” it’s always fascinating to find out something new that’s almost right under your nose!
Lexie, I guess it’s proof of the old phrase: “The more I learn, the less I know.” Which actually is a good thing for lifelong learners to believe. And even though the curiosity keeps us exploring it can be humbling for sure. ~James
Love this! So interesting!
Thanks Terry. I’m glad you enjoyed it. These earthworks really are in the middle of nowhere, and if it weren’t for the signs, it would be easy to drive right by without knowing what you were seeing. Go to the website that we linked to in the post for lots more info. The cooking balls were pretty cool. I hope you’re doing well. Love, JH
This is so amazing- not least because I’d never heard of it before. Like you, finding a greater appreciation for the history and culture close to home was a blessing of the COVID restrictions. Great post.
Thanks Carol. We’ve always made it a point to travel in the US, but these past Covid years have certainly increased the number of US trips. If you haven’t seen our post on the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania, you might also find it interesting. It was another off the path Covid trip.
Thank you, look forward to reading it.
What a great article! I really enjoy learning about American history I never knew existed. I owe a visit to Louisiana. Thank you
Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. This is some of the earliest American history, and Louisiana is a great place to see it. ~James
You’ve opened my eyes. I’d never heard of this site. We’d have a much better understanding if there were written records.
You’ve said what every archaeologist working in North America has said as well. I’m sure that piecing any culture together without a written record is difficult, particularly one with very few durable artifacts. Still, it’s an interesting historical site for sure. ~James