Poverty Point

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POVERTY POINT, in northeastern Louisiana, is the most striking example of prehistoric Archaic culture in the southeastern United States. In addition to typical Archaic stone projectile points, grooved stone axes, adzes, celts, tubular pipes, and steatite and sandstone vessels, the site also contains some of the most impressive aboriginal earthworks and mounds in North America. A series of six concentric artificial ridges forming a "C" shape was constructed between 1300 and 200 b.c. on an ancient alluvial fan in a former channel of the Arkansas River. The largest of these earth ridges is more than twelve hundred meters across. Gaps between the ridges allowed access to a central plaza. Archaeologists are still unsure whether Poverty Point's population lived at the site or gathered at the mounds for ceremonial purposes only, living instead in scattered sites nearby.

A twenty-three-meter-high earth mound, shaped like a bird with outspread wings, was constructed immediately outside the settlement in a position seven degrees south of due west. The purpose of this large mound, whose base is two hundred meters across, remains a mystery. Another mound, uncompleted but probably planned in a shape similar to that of the first, is located two kilometers north of the ridges, at about seven degrees west of true north. Conical burial mounds and a small amount of fiber-tempered pottery indicate an advanced, transitional character for the population.

Archaeologists have long wondered how a site of this size could exist without signs of intensive agriculture. The site's occupants may have cultivated local plants such as squash, sunflowers, and sumpweed, but there is no sign that they grew maize, the staple of later concentrated populations, and it is probable that they lived primarily from hunting, fishing, and gathering. The site had clear trade connections to other related sites throughout the Southeast. Figurines of clay representing nude females, pendants of hard stones representing birds' heads, small bead buttons, stone blades struck from prepared cores, and petaloid greenstone celts are among artifacts that suggest contact with Mesoamerica, but such contact is fiercely debated. In spite of extensive research, much of this remarkable site and the people associated with it remains a mystery.


Byrd, Kathleen M., ed. The Poverty Point Culture: Local Manifestations, Subsistence Practices, and Trade Networks. Geoscience and Man, vol. 29. Baton Rouge: Geoscience Publications, Louisiana State University, 1991.

GuyGibbon/J. H.

See alsoArchaeology and Prehistory of North America ; Indian Mounds ; National Park System .