Discovering the past: Poverty Point, a Native American monumental complex

TWH – The UNESCO World Heritage Site Poverty Point is perhaps the oldest ceremonial complex in North America and ongoing archaeological research has broadened our understanding of the site. Poverty Point is located just west of the Mississippi River in northeast Louisiana.

Dating back to over 3,000 years ago, it may be the oldest ceremonial complex in North America. In English, this World Heritage site bears the terrible name of “Poverty Point”. It contains six concentric semi-circular ridges and four mounds. These semi-circular ridges open onto a large square. The architecture suggests a group activity, a ritual or a spectacle.

Unfortunately, no one knows how people used this place. Archaeologists have found evidence of an extensive trading network at the site. They failed to find human burials or the remains of domesticated crops. The name of the Amerindian people (s) who built this site remains unknown.

Research published this year in the journal Southeastern Archeology, “Multi-method geoarchaeological analyzes demonstrate exceptionally rapid construction from Ridge West 3 to Poverty Point” indicates that hunter-gatherers constructed one of the semi-circular ridges in a matter of seconds. weeks or months. Archaeologists estimate that Native Americans built this ridge between 1350 and 1050 BCE. Indigenous peoples abandoned the site before 775 BCE. No one knows the reason for his abandonment.

What does the poverty point look like?

According to Poverty Point’s interpretation, Native Americans built this site during what academics call the “end of the archaic” period. During this period, most people lived in small hunter-gatherer groups. The adoption of agriculture ended the “late archaic” period. The people of Poverty Point did not farm. Instead, the inhabitants of this site ate fish, frogs, turtles, deer, nuts, fruits, and other wild foods. Remains of fish bones predominate on the site. These food scraps are compatible with the diet of hunter-gatherers.

The six semi-circular ridges face east, in a central plaza of about 17.5 ha (43 acres). Just beyond the square flows the Macon Bayou. In this square, archaeologists found evidence of pole holes forming circles, with a diameter of up to 64.9 m (213 ft).

The semi-circular 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. Cultural relics found include microlithic tools, soapstone vessels, and pearl production. The Native Americans at this site had a Neolithic version of a mini-factory. The site lacks useful material for Stone Age tools. The people of Poverty Point should have sourced these raw materials from elsewhere. Archaeologists have found evidence of a large trading network in the stone. Some stone material came from 1287.4 km (800 miles) from the site.

How the natives built a semi-circular ridge, RW3

Archaeologists excavated the third semi-circular ridge, RW3. People built this ridge in two stages. Before human occupation, the soils of the site show that the worms had modified these soils. This model is compatible with minimal human interference.

A steep and smooth border separates the era of nature from that of human occupation. The pre-construction stage shows signs of human occupation. It contains the debris of human occupation, as well as soil sediments worked by man. Before humans built this complex, they had a relationship with the landscape.

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

Construction phase 1 started the construction of the ridge in a semi-circle. It has six layers. Each layer contains silt, clay, silt and human debris. Probably, this debris came from dumps (heaps of garbage) and other human waste. Separate layers of infill make up this step. Usually, “clean” diapers separate “dirty” diapers. After completing each layer, people set it on fire. The ashes from these fires became part of the landfill.

At the boundary between construction steps 1 and 2, the ground changes color. It is also more homogeneous. Unfortunately, modern land use practices and erosion contaminated the soils in construction phase 2.

The builders of Poverty Point used soils, basal clays and silt loams from different areas of the site. For example, basal clays are found well below the surface of the site. The ancient Amerindians should have, for lack of a better term, “exploited” the soil for these basal clays. And they did, with stone tools. The silt loam and debris of human occupation lay fairly close to the surface. Sometimes they mixed the types of soil in the backfill.

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

Interpretation and meaning

High levels of precipitation and humidity occur in the lower Mississippi. This model would increase the risk of erosion of softer soils. The semi-circular ridges exhibited minimal erosion. This lack of erosion suggested a season for construction. People may have built the ridge in the fall, the least rainy season.

The presence of artifacts becomes denser 35 to 10 cm (13.8 to 3.9 in) below the surface. This area of ​​maximum density of artefacts would result from frequent contact between humans and the earth. Above 10 cm (3.9 in), erosion, modern human activity and wind have disturbed the soil too much. It is no longer useful for archaeological research.

Artist’s impression 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 probably used the site for about two hundred years before building the ridges in a semi-circle. The pre-build stage and the two build stages had similar artifacts. This similarity indicates a continuity in material culture through the three stages.

The researchers noted that “Contrary to expectations of a simple, headless, hunter-gatherer socio-political organization, this effort demonstrates that these people had political and social structures where individuals were motivated and allowed to participate in exceptional work efforts. Academics believed such massive projects were beyond the capabilities of hunter-gatherer groups. Yet the Native Americans planned and built a ceremonial complex. They and other Native Americans created trade networks spanning hundreds of miles.

Research at Poverty Point and other sites around the world like Göbekli Tepe continues to shed light on the achievements of hunter-gatherer societies.

About Thomas Thorton

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