By Dr. Terry L. Jones
In 2014, Louisiana received some long overdue recognition when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized the Poverty Point State Historic Site near Epps as a World Heritage Site. This action placed Poverty Point in the same cultural classification as the Great Wall of China.
The Poverty Point people flourished for a thousand years between 1,700 and 700 B.C., and occupied much of the lower Mississippi Valley. The large earthen complex near Epps seems to have been the most important site of this mysterious culture.
Poverty Point contains six huge earthen ridges that were built in a semi-circle next to Bayou Macon, possibly to serve as platforms for houses. Numerous mounds are also scattered around the site, the most famous being the seventy-foot-tall “Bird Mound.” It is the nation’s second largest Indian mound, and is so named because early archaeologists thought it was built in the shape of a flying bird.
Most archaeologists believe that Poverty Point was the heart of a complex trading system. Hundreds of thousands of artifacts have been found there, and many were made from exotic minerals such as copper, steatite, hematite, soapstone, novaculite (Arkansas stone) and red jasper. Some of these minerals came from as far away as Wisconsin.
The Poverty Point people were the first Louisiana Indians to wear large amounts of beads, ear ornaments, necklaces and other jewelry. Clay pipes indicate they were smoking people, and small owl pendants carved from jasper provide a glimpse into possible religious beliefs.
Baking, rather than charbroiling, seemed to be the preferred method of cooking for the Poverty Point people. Small cooking balls formed from clay were heated and placed in fire pits and food was placed on top to cook. Ingeniously, the Indians were able to regulate the temperature of the “ovens” by using different shaped balls. These so-called Poverty Point Objects, or PPOs, are the most common artifact found in Poverty Point sites.
After flourishing for more than 1,000 years, the Poverty Point culture suddenly disappeared. But no hard evidence has ever been discovered to explain why.
For many years, archaeologists believed that the Poverty Point Indians were America’s first mound builders. Now they know otherwise.
Prior to Poverty Point, Native Americans referred to as the Archaic Indians occupied Louisiana. These early inhabitants were extended families of hunter gatherers who wandered over the landscape hunting, fishing, and gathering nuts and berries. Most appear not to have stayed in one place for more than a few months at a time, so archaeologists never really considered them to have been mound builders.
Thus, archaeologists were shocked in the 1990s when University of Louisiana at Monroe archaeologist Joe Saunders and his assistant Recca Jones studied several mounds in Northeast Louisiana and recovered radiocarbon dates to about 3,000 B.C. Since this would make the mounds much older than any others ever found, the professional community believed a mistake had been made in the testing and viewed the results with suspicion.
Then Saunders and Jones examined the Watson Brake mound complex on the west side of the Ouachita River, which is approximately 20 miles south of West Monroe. There they found 11 mounds that were constructed in a circular pattern, with each mound being connected by a low, manmade earthen ridge. Saunders and Jones carefully retrieved organic material taken from the mounds that dated to 3,500 B.C.
This time there was no doubting the evidence. The Watson Brake mounds are nearly 2,000 years older than Poverty Point, and are the oldest known Indian mounds in the United States, as well as the oldest known human construction in the entire Western Hemisphere. Watson Brake, in fact, is older than the Egyptian pyramids and England’s Stonehenge.
When its discovery proved beyond a doubt that Louisiana’s Archaic Indians were the first mound builders, archaeologists began looking for other ancient mounds. Two have been found on the campus of Louisiana State University, and others have been found in Louisiana and other states.
It is not known why the Indians built the Watson Brake mounds. The immediate area does not flood, and there is no evidence of it being a fortified place for protection. It does not even appear that the Indians lived there, although a possible occupation site for the builders was found some distance away from the mounds.
Why would Louisiana’s prehistoric Indians along the Ouachita River be the first in the Americas to undertake mound building? That question may never be answered.
Dr. Terry L. Jones is professor emeritus of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. He has received numerous awards for his Civil War books and outdoor articles.
This story first appeared in The Ouachita Citizen.