Artists conception of the Poverty Point archaeological site near Epps, Louisiana at it’s height. The site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the spring of 2014, only the 22nd in the United States to be added to the World Heritage List and the first in Louisiana. Oil painting, 24″ x 36″, 2014.
Poverty Point in northeastern Louisiana’s Bayou Macon is a place I missed when traveling. I hope more archeological work brings light to the ancient culture that lived there. 11,000 years ago, an ancient community, perhaps called Koroa or Colewa, spread over 700 square miles. 6,000 years ago, about the same time the Egyptians began the pyramids, these mound-builders, lacking stone, began their earthworks. By 1,500 BC Poverty Point processed the largest earthworks in the Western Hemisphere along its river.
Famous for its six semi-circular rings or ridges (like effigy mounds) that measure three-fourths of a mile from north to south and cannot be seen well from the ground, Poverty Point’s rings were spotted in a 1938 aerial photo. Poverty Point also has six mounds: The largest is 70 feet high and 700 feet long . Others have various shapes, including a two-story high flat-topped platform with a ramp above its levees.
The Poverty Point Macon Ridge, left after the Ice Age, is 130 miles long and rises out of marshlands, brackish lakes, and in a salt water littoral zone. Its C-shaped earthworks with a central plaza could have been the site of dances and ballgames. The area’s climate had been rainy, soggy, muddy but not prone to floods.
How much dirt did it take? One estimate is 230,000 cubic yards of fill or about 17,000 large dump truck loads. Another estimate claims it took up to 1 million cubic yards which, using baskets and deer hide sacks to bring earth from the eastern side of the ridge, would have taken 100 laborers between 21 and 24 years working every day to build the standing earthworks alone.
Poverty Point People
The people of Poverty Point hunted, gathered, traded, and, of course, fished the river with nets and traps. It’s imaged their faces and bodies were painted red, white and brownish red and decorated with tattoos. They had beads, feathers, and deer antlers for decoration and travelled in dugout canoes. They built house and hearths on top of rings. With a mild climate and abundant plants and animals, the population around 1350 BC has been estimated at between several hundred to one thousand.
They dug wild potatoes and hunted with darts or throwing sticks. With some alligators and no bear, perhaps a few mountain lions, there were few dangers. They grew no corn, but picked grapes, wild plum, and squash, and gathered black walnuts, pecans, and acorns. A large starchy fungus called Tuckahoe looked like a coconut, was dried then grated. They hunted turtles, squirrels, other small mammals, and a few deer.
With no rock in the area, they imported and traded obsidian from Wyoming and tons of rock quartz and crystal. They traded from as far north as northern Michigan to the Gulf and from the East Coast west into Arkansas.
My People of the Rings
In The Pharaoh and Librarian, I chose Poverty Point as a safe place for Alex to settle for a while on her journey. As a pregnant widow, she needed a gentle climate and welcoming people. I imagined a village sharing labor, dancing, and storytelling upon the rings while also busy gathering of wild foods and fishing. In truth I imagined a community more isolated and peaceful than it would have been, considering Louisiana has more than 700 mound sites.
“The Ancient Mounds of Poverty Point: Place of Rings” by Jon L. Gibson