The Mound Builders of Louisiana

Back in the late 80's, when I was a student at Northeast Louisiana University (now ULM), the second floor of Hannah Hall housed a motley collection of rocks, artifacts and preserved specimens named, somewhat grandiosely, the "Northeast Louisiana University Museum of Natural History."

Back then, it was just a collection of display cases that lined the halls between offices and classrooms, and whose main claim to notoriety was the world's largest collection of preserved freshwater fish. They did have one exhibit, however, that managed to catch my attention; the skeleton of an Native American female, excavated from a burial mound.

NLU's researchers had long been denied access to the site by the landowners, but the floodwaters of the Ouachita River one year had eroded the mound somewhat, partially exposing the skeleton and a treasure trove of artifacts. Faced with the reality that another rise in the river level would likely wash it away altogether, the landowner allowed the university team to excavate the site. I can't recall the exact age of the skeleton, but I remember being powerfully intrigued that, right there in my home town, there lay archeological remains of former civilizations that predated the European exploration of North America, and possibly even predated the birth of Christ.

Nowadays, my alma mater has a different name, different mascot, and a new home for it's Natural History Museum, but my fascination with the mound building people of Louisiana remains unchanged.

Dotted across northeast Louisiana, and extending as far south as the river parishes, lie remnants of some of the oldest civilizations in North America. This weekend, I taught a PALS class at a rural hospital in far northeast Louisiana, and afterwards I had the chance to take KatyBeth and her stepsister to the most famous of these sites, Poverty Point. From the Wikipedia article:

Poverty Point (French: Pointe de Pauvreté) is a prehistoric earthworks of the Poverty Point culture, now a historic monument located in the Southern United States. It is 15.5 miles (24.9 km) from the current Mississippi River, and situated on the edge of Maçon Ridge, near the village of Epps in West Carroll Parish, Louisiana.

Poverty Point comprises several earthworks and mounds built between 1650 and 700 BCE, during the Archaic period in the Americas by a group of Native Americans of the Poverty Point culture. The culture extended 100 miles (160 km) across the Mississippi Delta. The original purposes of Poverty Point have not been determined by archeologists, although they have proposed various possibilities including that it was: a settlement, a trading center, and/or a ceremonial religious complex.

The site gets its name from the nineteenth century plantation upon which the earthworks were discovered. With a few thousand years of erosion, agricultural cultivation and native plant growth since its construction, most of the original earthworks are indistinguishable from natural terrain features. Indeed, unless you know what you're looking at, it is rather unimpressive:


At its discovery in the 1930's, Poverty Point was considered little more than a neat place in the woods to collect pottery shards and arrowheads. No one had any idea of the scope and size of the civilization that dwelt there, until aerial surveys of the site revealed the complexity of the earthworks:



It soon became apparent that those terrain features were the ruins of an ancient civilization, and the site is now a national monument and a state park. Over the years since its discovery, seven mounds have been discovered, in addition to the man-made ridges you see in the photo. It was at one time considered the oldest civilization yet discovered in North or Central America.

Prior to the discovery of Poverty Point, North American natives of the Archaic period were considered to be little more than loosely-banded tribes of hunter gatherers, with no defined culture or religion. An artist's reconstruction of the site puts the lie to that incorrect assumption:


To give you an idea of the antiquity, size and scope of Poverty Point, consider the following:

  • The earthworks at Poverty Point rival the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza, except that the ancient peoples there moved soil, not stone. And they did it without wheelbarrows, pack animals or sophisticated digging implements. They used their bare hands and woven baskets.
  • Tutankhamen was ruling in Egypt.
  • Hammurabi ruled Babylon.
  • Stonehenge was still under construction.
  • The Olmecs were only just ascending to power in Mexico, and there were no Mayans.The pyramids of Chichén Itzá did not even exist.
  • The cliff dwellings of the Anasazi in the southwestern United States wouldn't be built for another 1500+ years.

There is still some debate whether Poverty Point was a trade center, settlement or a religious ceremonial site, but due to the dearth of human remains, none of the mounds were believed to be burial mounds. Magnetic resonance imaging of the site indicates a number of circular depressions on the earthen ridges that were believed to be building foundations. Cooking stones and charcoal found in these areas support that assumption. It is estimated that over 700 dwellings occupied the ridges at Poverty Point, and at the height of the civilization, it was used or inhabited by as many as 23,000 people.

Non-native artifacts found at the site indicate that trade from Poverty Point extended as far as the Appalachian Mountains, the Midwest, and the Great Lakes region – pretty damned impressive for a people once considered to be hunter gatherers.

For years, Poverty Point was considered the oldest archeological site in North America, but the 1981 discovery of the Watson Brake mounds, an interconnected complex of eleven mounds arranged in a 900 foot oval, proved even older. Located near my home town of Monroe, LA, Watson Brake represents a settlement  some 2000 years older than Poverty Point. The site dates back to 3500 BC, which makes it older than the Great Pyramid of Giza by a good thousand years.

Despite its antiquity, Watson Brake lacks the sophistication and evidence of trade of the Poverty Point mounds, and was believed to be a communal gathering place for early hunter-gatherers. Unfortunately, most of Watson Brake is privately owned, and off-limits to the viewing public.

Before my Ambulance Driver days, way back when I trained retrievers professionally, I took over my brother's training kennels, located at the mouth of Bayou DeSiard where it empties into the Ouachita River. Directly across the bayou from my kennels was a wooded area very popular with the local kids because it featured a number of steep hills just perfect for catching some serious air on their BMX bikes. I doubt many of those kids knew they were riding their bikes over ancient burial mounds, but plenty of adults did, because the area was a popular site for illicit pagan and Satanic cult rituals. More than once, while washing down my kennels at dusk, have I seen people in black robes filtering silently through those woods, or heard their chants drifting across the water.

Now, I don't know much about pagan rituals, much less Satanic worship, but apparently one distinguishing feature of many of the cults in the area were nubile priestesses that liked to prance around nekkid by firelight. As such, all the kids I hired to help me around the kennels were instructed to come get me if they saw any nekkid women in the woods on the far bank of the bayou.

You know, so I could… investigate, and stuff.

Nowadays, that area around the Pargoud Mound has been turned into a subdivision full of million dollar homes, all situated within site of an ancient burial mound. For all I know, given its proximity to the Ouachita River, it may be the mound that housed the skeleton I saw in the NLU Natural History Museum all those years ago.

Since that picture was taken, a rather large and ostentatious McMansion was built there, with the mound situated literally in its back yard. Given a big push on the swing set, the kiddies can almost drag their feet over the remains of ancient Meso-Americans.

And you thought it was creepy having a cemetery next door.

If you're an anthropology or archeology geek, and you ever visit north Louisiana, you can take a driving tour of some of the earliest civilizations of North America.

Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, really.