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An aerial view of the Poverty Point earthworks built by the ancient Poverty Point culture.

Poverty Point culture is an archaeological culture that corresponds to an ancient group of American Indians who inhabited the area of the lower Mississippi Valley and surrounding Gulf coast. This culture thrived from 2200 BCE- 700 BCE, during the late Archaic period. Evidence of this culture has been found at more than 100 sites, including the Jaketown Site near Belzoni, Mississippi. The largest and best-known site is near modern-day Epps, Louisiana at Poverty Point, which lies on the Macon Ridge. The Poverty Point culture may have hit its peak around 1500 BCE, making it the first complex culture, and possibly the first tribal culture, not only in the Mississippi Delta but in the present-day United States. Its people were in villages that extended for nearly 100 miles across the Mississippi River.[1]

Poverty Point culture was followed by the Tchefuncte and Lake Cormorant cultures of the Tchula period (a local manifestation of Early Woodland). These descendant cultures differed from Poverty Point culture in trading over shorter distances, creating less massive public projects, completely adopting ceramics for storage and cooking, and lacking a lapidary (stone-carving) industry.

Contents

Earthworks

Although the earthworks at Poverty Point are not the oldest in the United States,[2]) they are notable as the oldest earthworks of this size in the Western Hemisphere. The earthworks at Watson Brake were built about 1900 years earlier. The site has six concentric earthworks separated by ditches, or swales, where dirt was removed to build the ridges. The ends of the outermost ridge are 1,204 meters apart, which is nearly 3/4 of a mile. The ends of the interior embankment are 594 meters apart. If the ridges were straightened and laid end to end, they would comprise an embankment of 12 kilometers, or 7 1/2 miles, in length. Originally, the ridges stood 4 to 6 feet high and 140 to 200 feet apart. Many years of plowing have reduced some to only one foot in height. Archeologists believe that the homes of 500 to 1,000 inhabitants were located on these ridges. [3] This was the largest settlement at that time in North America. The site also had a 50-foot high, 500-foot long earthen pyramid, which was aligned east to west.[4] A large bird effigy mound, measuring 70 feet high and 640 feet across, is also located on the Poverty Point site. [5] In the center of the Poverty Point concentric earthworks is a plaza, a constructed and leveled, flat, open area covering about 15 hectares or 37 acres. Archeologists believe the plaza was the site of public ceremonies, rituals, dances, games and other major community activities.

On the western side of the plaza, archeologists have found some unusually deep pits. One explanation is these holes once held huge wooden posts, which served as calendar markers. Using the sun’s shadows, the inhabitants could have predicted the changing of the seasons. [6] This great building project demanded a sustained investment of human labor, the organized skill and the cultural will to sustain the effort over many centuries.[7] One authority calculated that it would take more that 1,236,007 cubic feet of basket-loaded soil to complete the earthworks. That would mean 1,350 adults laboring 70 days a year for three years.[8]

Artifacts

Female effigy clay objects from Poverty Point
Atlatl weights and carved stone gorgets from Poverty Point

Archeological excavation has revealed a wealth of artifacts, including animal effigy figures; hand-molded, baked-clay cooking objects; simple thick-walled pottery; stone vessels, spear points, adzes, hoes, drills, edge-retouched flakes, and blades.[9] Stone cooking balls were used to prepare meals. Scholars believe dozens of the cooking balls were heated in a bonfire and dropped in pits along with food. Different-shaped balls controlled cooking temperatures and cooking time.

Another type of artifact, crude human figures, are thought to have been used for magical purposes. Points made of imported gray Midwestern flint were also found. In addition, plummets were fashioned out of heavy iron ore imported from Hot Springs, Arkansas; they served as weights for fish nets. [10] Many of the raw materials used, such as slate, copper, galena, jasper, quartz, and soapstone, were from as far as 620 miles away, attesting to the distant reach of the trading culture. [11] The Poverty Point culture developed a tradition of making high-quality, stylized, carved and polished miniature stone beads. Other early cultures in the United States rarely used stone to make their beads, opting for softer materials such as shell or bone. The fine cutting, engraving and polishing lapidary work done by these people resulted in refined and unique art forms. They made the beads in the images of many different animals that were common to their environment, such as an owl, dog, locust, and turkey vulture.[12]

See also

References

  1. ^ Jon L. Gibson, PhD, "Poverty Point: The First Complex Mississippi Culture", 2001, Delta Blues, accessed 26 Oct 2009
  2. ^ Fagan, Brian M. 2005. Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent, Fourth Edition. New York. Thames & Hudson Inc. p390.
  3. ^ http://www.lpb.org/programs/povertypoint/pp_transcript.html
  4. ^ Townsend, Richard F. (2004) Hero, Hawk and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South, London: Yale University Press. p17.
  5. ^ http://www.lithiccastinglab.com/gallery-pages/2001aprilbeads.htm
  6. ^ http://www.lpb.org/programs/povertypoint/pp_transcript.html
  7. ^ Berlo, Janet C. and Ruth B. Phillips (1998), Native North American Art, Oxford: Oxford University Press. p75-76.
  8. ^ Fagan, Brian M. (2005) Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent, Fourth Edition. New York: Thames & Hudson Inc. p418.
  9. ^ http://www.geocities.com/xjpcx/Povertypointpage.html
  10. ^ http://www.deltablues.net/jon.html
  11. ^ Fagan, Brian M. (2005), Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent, Fourth Edition. New York: Thames & Hudson Inc. p418.
  12. ^ http://www.lithiccastinglab.com/gallery-pages/2001aprilbeads.htm "Lapidary Beads"], Lithiccasting Lab
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