Poverty Point: Louisiana’s hill country



In New Orleans we preserve our nineteenth century French Quarter architecture out of fear that we might lose or damage something old and precious from our culture. We defend the importance of these relatively new buildings within our relatively new country against the importance of the Medieval and Renaissance structures of Europe.

And yet, we have no reason to be defensive. Discussions of context and recent history aside, the state of Louisiana holds complex man-made structures and archeological finds dating back more than 5,000 years.


While exploring ancient Indian mounds in northeast Louisiana this week, with the sun in my eyes and the warm wind blowing hair in my face, I accidentally turned to an old page in my notebook where I wrote,

Each ridge 4-6 ft high when built, 50 ft across top, 100 ft in between. Imagine without trees but with huts.

Poverty Point
  • Jon L. Gibson
  • Poverty Point

I didn’t notice the mistake until hunting down the information for this post. On the same page appear the words, “abstractions of American Modernism,” referring to artist George O’Keeffe, the focus of an essay last December, and yet oddly fitting regarding these patterned, evenly spaced ridges and oddly shaped, unexplainable man-made hills, the largest reaching seven hundred feet across and seventy-two feet in the air.

Mound A, also called the Bird Mound, 1300 B.C.

Our guide explained the phenomena in detail, predicating her information with phrases like, “We think that…,” “Archeologists surmise…,” and “We don’t know for sure, but…”

“Poverty Point archaeology,” writes anthropologist Jon L. Gibson, “consists of a few facts, lots of interpretations, and much that is not known.”

Indeed the site, named for a nineteenth century nearby farm and spreading one hundred miles on Bayou Marcon in the Mississippi River delta, stands out in a state so flat that in the 1930s the New Orleans Audubon Zoo piled up layers of dirt to “show the children of New Orleans what a hill looks like.” (from the zoo’s website, describing ‘Monkey Hill.’)

Poverty Point, aerial view

It’s easy on a beautiful spring day to understand (to guess) why the Native Americans chose this site as their home for seven hundred years. Although the modern world, such as it is in rural, mid-state Louisiana, drove out or killed off the abundance of animals over the years, this is indeed God’s country, with wildflowers, lush grass, flowing water, shade, sun, and breeze.

“These Indians had it made,” commented my husband, recalling our camping trip in the Grand Canyon. “Think of the Anasazi, living within caves hundreds of feet above the ground and trapped each winter by the snow.”

oil on canvas (detail), 1988

Use your imagination,” urged our guide. And so we did, picturing pyramid-like structures made of earth rather than stone, the stage for ceremonies and a focal point for the people living in semi-circles around the base of the largest mass.

My imagination traveled further and my astonishment peaked as we grasped that the oldest mound in this area of Louisiana dates to 3900 B.C. This is 1500 years before the Egyptians built the pyramids at Giza!

By some miracle of estimation, archaeologists claim that 23,000 people lived at Poverty Point in 1300 B.C. during the height of its culture, the same period that King Tutankhamun ruled Egypt. They spent their time hunting for food, weaving baskets, and hauling dirt for these mounds, some requiring the equivalent of 16,000 dump truck loads, or 10-12 million filled baskets.

The unnamed American Indian tribe lived on top of the concentric ridges, affording drainage and order for their thatched huts. The Bayou Marcon at that time was a lake, and the Mississippi River flowed only three miles away.

Poverty Point National Monument Museum, Pioneer, Louisiana
  • Poverty Point National Monument Museum, Pioneer, Louisiana

Rich with artifacts, the site holds hundreds of arrowheads, pottery shards, tools, extensive evidence of baskets, and even jewelry, as well as rocks carved with figures and designs, usually animals such as birds and foxes. Because the area has no stone, the people probably traded with their contemporaries in the West, providing baskets in exchange.
oil on canvas, 1984

Oddly enough, unlike the tombs within the Egyptian pyramids, the mounds at Poverty Point reveal no ancient human remains, indicating that the residents disposed of their dead by cremation. It is believed that the larger mounds were built for ceremonial use.
oil on canvas, 1984

The experts claim that this organized and rooted society was highly unusual for the hunter-gatherers (a term I had not heard since grade school). They built these mounds, these temples, with determination and skill, packing the dirt in layers so that even today, 3500 years of erosion later, we’re left with their legacy, an anomaly, Louisiana’s Hill Country.
oil on canvas, 1984

Eventually these original Americans adopted us, fighting for a 'new' country, the very place they called home, revered as sacred, and built structures for thousands of years. They created a legacy not only worth studying and preserving, but also worth visiting. On our day-trip to the area between Rayville and Tallulah in the vicinity of Vidalia, home of the sweet onions, we gained a new appreciation for America’s history and Louisiana’s important role in protecting and revering our ancient world.

Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)

-The Ancient Mounds of Poverty Point: Place of Rings by Jon L. Gibson, University Press of Florida, 2001
-The official Poverty Point website, maintained by the U.S. National Park Service

For a related post see “America the Beautiful,” our journey through the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Indian Reservation from “Musings of an Artist’s Wife

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