Uncovering the Past: Poverty Point, Native American Monumental Complex

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TWH – The UNESCO World Heritage site Poverty Point may be North America’s oldest ceremonial complex and current archeological research has expanded our understanding of the site.  Poverty Point lies just west of the Mississippi River in northeastern Louisiana.

Dating to over 3000 years ago, it may be North America’s oldest ceremonial complex. In English, this Word Heritage site has the dreadful name of “Poverty Point.” It contains six concentric half-circle ridges and four mounds. Those half-circle ridges open onto a large plaza. The architecture suggests a group activity, ritual, or spectacle.

Unfortunately, no one knows how people used that plaza. Archaeologists found evidence of an extensive trade network at the site. They failed to find any human burials or remains of domesticated crops. The name of the Native American people(s) who built this site remains unknown.

Research published this year in the journal Southeastern Archaeology, “Multi-method geoarchaeological analyses demonstrate exceptionally rapid construction of Ridge West 3 at Poverty Point” indicates that hunter-gatherers built one of the half-circle ridges in weeks or months. Archaeologists estimate that Native Americans would have constructed this ridge sometime between 1350 and 1050 B.C.E. Native peoples abandoned the site sometime before 775 B.C.E. No one knows the reason for its abandonment.

What does Poverty Point look like?

According to the Poverty Point interpretation, Native Americans built this site in, what academics call, “the Late Archaic” period. During that period, most people lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers. The adoption of farming ended the “Late Archaic” period. People at Poverty Point did not farm. Instead, people at this site ate fish, frogs, turtles, deer, nuts, fruits, and other wild foods. Remains of fish bones predominate at the site. Those food remains are consistent with the diet of hunter-gatherers.

The six half-circle ridges face to the East, onto a central plaza of ~17.5 ha (43 acres). Just beyond the plaza, the Macon Bayou flows. In that plaza, archaeologists have found evidence of post holes forming circles, with a diameter up to 64.9 m (213 ft.).

The half-circle ridges averaged 2 to 3 m (6.6 to 9.8 ft.) in height and 30 to 40 m (98.4 to 131.2 ft) in width. The cultural remains found include microlithic tools, soapstone containers, and bead production. The Native Americans at this site had a Neolithic version of a mini-factory. The site lacks material useful for stone-age tools. People at Poverty Point would have had to get those raw materials elsewhere. Archaeologists found evidence of an extensive trade network in stone. Some stone material originated 1287.4 km (800 miles) away from the site.

How Natives built one half-circle ridge, RW3

Archaeologists excavated the third half-circle ridge, RW3. People built that ridge in two stages. Before the human occupation, soils at the site show that worms had changed those soils. That pattern is consistent with minimal human interference.

An abrupt and smooth boundary separates the era of nature from that of human occupation. The Pre-Construction Stage shows evidence of human occupation. It contains the debris of human occupation, as well as soil sediments worked by humans. Before humans built this complex, they had a relationship with the landscape.

Mound A at the Monumental Earthworks Poverty Point World Heritage Site. Photo Credit: Jennifer R. Trotter [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Construction Stage 1 began the construction of the half-circle ridge. It has six layers. Each layer contains silt, clay, loam, and human debris. Probably, that debris came from middens (trash heaps) and other human waste. Distinct layers of fill make up this stage. Generally, “clean” layers separate “dirty” layers. After completing each layer, people set fires. The ashes from those fires became part of the fill.

 At the boundary between Construction Stages 1 and 2, the soil changes color. It is also more homogenous. Unfortunately, modern land-use practices and erosion have contaminated soils in Construction Stage 2.

The builders of Poverty Point used soils, basal clays, and silt loam, from different areas of the site. For example, basal clays lay far below the surface of the site. Ancient Native Americans would have had to, for lack of a better term, “mine’ the soil for these basal clays. And they did so, with stone tools. Silt loam and the debris of human occupation lay quite near the surface. Sometimes they mixed soil types in the fill.

The soil at the boundary between the first and second stages of construction shows no signs of weathering. Neither do any of the boundaries between layers with either construction stage. This lack of weathering indicates rapid construction. According to “Southwestern Archaeology,” only days or weeks passed between construction stages.

Interpretation and significance

Elevated levels of rainfall and humidity occur in the lower Mississippi. That pattern would increase the risk of eroding looser soil. The half-circle ridges showed minimal erosion. That lack of erosion suggested a season for construction. People may have built the ridge in the Fall, the season with the least rainfall.

The presence of artifacts becomes most dense between 35 and 10 cm (13.8 to 3.9 in) below the surface. This zone of maximum artifact density would result from frequent contact between humans and the land. Above the 10 cm (3.9 in.), erosion, modern human activity, and wind have disturbed the soil too much. It has become no longer useful for archaeological research.

Artist’s conception of the Poverty Point archaeological site near Epps, Louisiana at its height. Oil painting, 24″ x 36″, 2014. [Artist Credit Herb Roe [CC BY-SA 4.0]

People had likely used the site for about two hundred years before they built the half-circle ridges. The Pre-Construction stage and both of the Construction Stages had similar artifacts. That similarity indicates a continuity in material culture across all three stages.

Researchers noted that “In contrast to expectations about simple, acephalous, hunter-gatherer sociopolitical organization, this effort demonstrates that these people had political and social structures where individuals were motivated and enabled to participate in exceptional labor efforts.” Academics have thought such massive projects were beyond the ability of groups of hunter-gatherers. Yet the Native Americans planned and built a ceremonial complex. They and other Native Americans created trade networks extending for 100s of miles.

Research at Poverty Point and other sites around the world like Göbekli Tepe continues to clarify the record on the accomplishments of hunter-gatherer societies.