Poverty Point: Star of My Show

Near Bayou Macon, Louisiana, is an archaeological site called Poverty Point. I am drawing for information about Poverty Point primarily on the book Mysteries of the Ancient Americas, 1986, by the The Reader’s Digest Association Inc., but here is the official Poverty Point web site. It is now a World Heritage Site. Here is a recent article about an archaeological project done at Poverty Point.

First, the Obligatory Eye-Rolling at Mainstream Archaeology

Like many North American sites, Poverty Point was hard to spot because it consists of earthworks that had been overgrown with forest. (And not only North American sites. Radar technology is revealing that the Mayan civilization was much more extensive than first thought — because the jungle took over so quickly — and is also revealing old settlements in what was hitherto thought to be never-before-settled Amazon rainforest.)

Earthworks are basically impossible to date, but for other reasons, Poverty Point is thought to be about 3,000 years old (i.e. about 1,000 B.C.). However, it helps to remember that when dealing with paleontology and even archaeology, dates are often basically just made up — i.e. reached through dead reckoning based on a shaky framework of background assumptions. But let’s accept 1,000 B.C. for now.

Mysteries, which again, was published in 1986, also makes several more or less dubious claims about the builders of Poverty Point. Here’s a sampling:

“[S]cholars think it is doubtful that societies on the chiefdom level existed in North America 3,000 years ago.” (page 111)

“[This civilization] had no writing, no true agriculture, and no architecture except for its earthworks. Its weapons were simple: the spear, the atlatl, the dart, the knife, and possibly the bola. Even the bow and arrow was unknown to these people.” (page 112)

“Considering the massiveness of Poverty Point’s ridges and mounds, one naturally assumes that they were built over many generations or even centuries.” (page 112)

Mysteries of the Ancient Americas

The first of these quotes is 100% pure assumption, based on the noble savage mythology so beloved of modern academics.

The second is also pure assumption. A better way to put it would be that we have found no evidence of writing, agriculture, etc., so far. The findings reported at the first link above seem to confirm that agriculture was not a big thing at Poverty Point, based on the remains of the peoples’ diet, but this could have been simply because the fishing and foraging was so abundant. It does not necessarily mean they were “only hunter-gatherers” who had not “advanced” to the level of agriculture. C.f. similar claims being made about Gobekli Tepe. As for the bow and arrow, I take it that remnants of all these other weapons have been found, but not bows. Even that, I take with a grain of salt, as it seems that almost every week, something is discovered that we had thought this or that ancient group didn’t have. (Here’s the latest example, which even refers to ancient humans as not particularly ‘smart,’ with ‘smart’ in scare quotes.) But even if the Poverty Point people did not use bows and arrows, this does not necessarily mean the weapon was “unknown” to them. Perhaps they had specialized in other weapons instead. Not everybody in the Middle Ages was an English longbowman, but boy oh boy did they know about them!

Finally, the third claim made in the Mysteries quote box (which they at least had the grace to call an assumption), appears to have been possibly disproven by the second link above. “New radiocarbon dating, microscopic analysis of soil, and magnetic measurements of soils at Ridge West 3 found no evidence of weathering between layers of soil, suggesting that the earthwork had been built rapidly.”

Now, the Site Itself

from Mysteries of the Ancient Americas, p. 111

It’s easier to just show you guys this diagram than to try to describe it, but buckle up, here comes the description. The Poverty Point site consists of earthen ridges set concentrically inside each other, in what looks like a C-shape from the air. “The two central aisles point toward the setting sun at solstice” (ibid). Directly to the west of all this is a large man-made mound (Mound A), while a ways farther north there is a smaller mound (Mound B), which seems to be a burial mound. Bayou Macon, directly to the east, cuts through the eastern side of this whole complex. Was this whole thing originally C-shaped, or was it a circle? Probably a C shape, because there are similar, smaller sites around this region which tend to be “constructed in a semicircle or semioval pattern with the open side facing the water and with one or more mounds located nearby.” (ibid)

The book uses the word “ceremonial” a lot, and honestly I can’t fault them. This complex was constructed by human beings, and now, millennia (?) later, more human beings come and look at it and say, “This looks like it was clearly designed for ceremonial purposes.” That’s a valid argument. The architecture is having a certain effect on us, and we can assume that it had that same effect on our long-lost fellows, and was designed to.

Poverty-Point-related sites have yielded thousands of little decorated clay balls, called Poverty Point objects, that we think were used for cooking. There are also little clay sculptures of female torsos (with or without heads), reminiscent of the Venuses found around ancient Europe. There are also “myriads of stone tools,” including drills, awls, and needles, made both from local stone and from flint imported from as far away as Indiana. They made “plummets,” perhaps as bola weights or perhaps as weights for fishnets, “most often of hematite in graceful teardrop or oval shapes [and] often decorated with beautifully executed stylized designs representing serpents, owls, and human figures.” (ibid, p. 115)

But it is in lapidary work that the Poverty Point people excelled. Pendants, buttons, beads, and small tablets are worked in an array of such colored or translucent stones as red jasper, amethyst, feldspar, red and green talc, galena, quartz, and limonite. Most of these stones were obtained by far-flung trade. Among the pendants are a number of bird effigies — red jasper owls and parakeets, and bird heads worked in polished jasper and brown and black stones. There are also representations of a human face, a turtle, claws, and rattles, and stubby but carefully made tubular pipes.

Mysteries of the Ancient Americas, p. 115

O.K., I’ve changed my mind. Perhaps this C-shaped complex was not ceremonial, it was a lapidary factory.

Regardless, the Poverty Point “hunter-gatherers” have once again made my point for me: that wherever human beings go, they start up civilization and display mathematics, art, and craftsmanship.

The Snake City

I guess there have been a lot of “snake cities” throughout history. In my third novel, The Great Snake (upcoming, hopefully in 2022), Snake City is founded by a small group who break off from our main group of characters. Their city is like a smaller, less populous version of Poverty Point.

As you can see, our city is much smaller. It overlooks the Mississippi River itself, rather than a bayou. The temple is built not on a man-made mound, but on a natural hill. The people actually live on top of the ridges. They aren’t lapidary craftspeople (at least, not as of the end of the novel). And, finally, this city is about 7,000 years earlier in time than Poverty Point. Other than that, though, it’s exactly the same.

In the cover image, Klee is standing on the lower hill that houses the women’s complex. Behind her, the temple looms over her from atop the hill. It has a Mayan-style roof comb that is facing away from the viewer. In this view, the snake is either hovering in the air just east of the temple, or possibly it is out over the river.

8 thoughts on “Poverty Point: Star of My Show

    1. *smiles*
      *cracks knuckles*
      *begins typing*

      No, my beef is with the evolutionary dogma that the earliest people weren’t fully human. It follows from this that, the farther back you go in time, the less you will find in terms of mathematics, technology, religion, art, etc., and this continues to be a very widespread assumption even though it is refuted by every single archaeological dig ever. This evolutionary assumption also leads to a romantic idea of our ancestors as living in a “primitive” state, “close to Nature,” and the consequent search for tribal peoples who are “still” living in this state … the “noble savage” myth. This, in turn, causes archaeologists to overlook, or be late at discovering, evidence of sophistication in parts of the world where we now find hunter-gatherers. The idea that the Amazon jungle was once an urban, agricultural area, or that there were large cities in North America, tends to be both surprising and even unwelcome because we have this romantic idea that the people here were hunter-gatherers “for thousands of years.”

      The thing about this that really causes me to gnaw my tongue in frustration, is that this blindness to the sophistication of ancient peoples is nowadays often attributed to “racism,” which in turn is assumed to be a characteristic of “conservatives.” In fact, this “early-man-was-primitive” attitude is coming directly from an evolutionary world view. If you start from a Christian world view, you take it as your going assumption that human beings have always been fully human, that agriculture and all other kinds of culture started very early, and that ancient people were at least as smart as modern ones, probably more so.

      I do have a secondary issue with the dating system, but that’s not a hill to die on as far as I’m concerned. It is, however, coming out of the same evolutionary world view that requires people to have been around for millions of years, and automatically interprets genetic difference as time depth, for example. Poverty Point is a very recent site archaeologically speaking, and our different dating systems tend to be more accurate (and more in agreement with each other) the closer we get to the present, so I don’t doubt the dating on this site necessarily.

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      1. Em @ The Geeky Jock

        Funnily enough … I’ve seen some work in evolutionary psychology arguing that modern hunter-gatherers probably have better cognitive abilities vs. us oh-so-sophisticated Westerners.

        The argument was that – in our society – there is “room” for varying cognitive abilities. However, in hunter-gatherer societies, people have to be a lot sharper and better at fluid problem solving.

        The problem, of course, is how to measure it … you can’t give non-Westernized people a standard IQ test, due to the cultural factors and Flynn effect. There’s really no good system of comparison …

        So, the evolutionary psychologists continue to hypothesize.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yeah, sorry, I was generalizing there, and perhaps being a bit unfair. I know that individual researchers definitely gain an appreciation for the vast amounts of knowledge and skill that it takes to survive as an adult in a subsistence situation, whether that’s hunting & gathering or subsistence farming. Then, the tendency is to flip the other way and idealize that lifestyle as the “perfect” human one, right? Because we are so impressed with the people we have gotten to know and perhaps we have fallen in love with their natural environment. Of course, if we are very quick to idealize their situation we might still be operating under the Noble Savage mythology.

          My basic take is that human beings are clever and capable, and they adapt in whatever situation they are. People tend to look stupid when they are put in a domain they have no experience in, as in a Papua New Guinean subsistence farmer at Harvard but definitely also a Harvard professor in the jungles of PNG.

          The slowly dawning idea that has been new to me, and that I don’t think has really caught on in mainstream anthropology yet, is the idea that abstract thought, including things like religion, astronomy, engineering (e.g. with megaliths), and literacy, is natural to human beings and that human beings do these things to whatever extent their circumstances allow, and always have. Thus, it’s inaccurate to say that either hunting and gathering, agriculture, or urban life, is the oldest lifestyle. Modern and/or ancient hunter/gatherer groups could be the survivors of some kind of event many generations ago that forced them to live more closely off the land.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly! (Wait … you mean because it would look like a big arena?)
      Also, we act like ceremonial and practical uses are mutually exclusive, which they’re not. Many practical things we do have a ceremonial quality to them … and this is truer the more advanced and risky the activity.

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        1. Hmm, yes, I see what you mean. It looks just like a temple.

          I can’t at this moment find it by Googling, but have you ever seen that satirical “archeological dig” where what is being excavated is a modern bathroom, filled with old newspapers, with a skeleton wearing a shower cap sitting in the tub? Every item in it is interpreted as religious.

          I Googled “skeleton in a tub” and it turns out a lot of people have photographed skeletons in tubs for some reason, but I didn’t find that article right away.

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