Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Books: Peopling Poverty Point Volume 55 Number 1, January/February 2002
by William R. Iseminger

[image] Inhabitants of Poverty Point didn't need agriculture to create a sophisticated culture. (Jon Gibson) [LARGER IMAGE]

Northeastern Louisiana's Poverty Point has always been an enigma. The unusual C-shaped arrangement of six concentric rings of low earthen ridges, broken into six segments by cross-cutting avenues, encloses an open plaza facing east above the bluffs of Bayou Macon. Just outside the rings--the diameter of the largest is three-quarters of a mile--are several mounds, including a massive 70-foot-tall bird-shaped one. Adding to the enigma is the fact that the mounds date to approximately 1500 B.C., some five centuries earlier than the era when mound building was a widespread activity. We now know there are much earlier mound precursors, such as the nearby Watson Brake group that was recently dated to as early as 3500 B.C.

Drawing on his 30 years of experience with the site, Jon Gibson has written The Ancient Mounds of Poverty Point: Place of Rings (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001; $55.00), a type of book more archaeologists should endeavor to write. He uses an easy narrative style to weave the hard data and his intriguing interpretations into a volume that both the general reader and the professional archaeologist can enjoy. It is a comprehensive study of the complex economic, political, social, and religious systems that created this unique site.

Gibson reviews the site's natural setting, the history of archaeological research there, and various interpretations of the mounds: the result of influences from the Hopewell of Ohio or the Olmec of Mexico, a ceremonial center that was vacant throughout much of the year, a site for trade fairs, or an observatory. Based on the tons of occupational debris at the site, Gibson believes Poverty Point was home to a large permanent population that lived not by agriculture but by fishing, hunting, and gathering. The people were sustained by tremendous amounts of fish, caught using nets weighted by innovative hematite plummets, in bayous, swamps, and streams near the site, and by other plant and animal foods. Gibson says Poverty Point's success was the result of extensive long-distance exchange, over hundreds of miles, to obtain tons of rocks and minerals used for making tools, weapons, and ornaments. But everyone shared and utilized these exotic resources.

Gibson believes the mounds were metaphors of the creation story shared by southeastern Indian cultures. In it, Earth Island, where people live, was built by Earth Diver (a crawfish), who brought muck from beneath the primordial sea. He sees the earthen rings as symbolic barriers against evils from outside the site, a threat which increased with contacts made in long-distance exchange. The open east side, he says, "allowed Creator Sun's blazing eye to bathe the inhabitants with warmth and goodness." Disharmony passed out through the avenues in the rings. While some archaeologists may challenge his interpretations, Gibson has assembled much evidence for his conclusions. This book should be read by anyone interested in southeastern archaeology and the accomplishments of the ancient inhabitants of Poverty Point.

William R. Iseminger, Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America