Poverty Point: The First Complex Delta Culture

Text and photos Copyright 2002 by Jon L. Gibson, Ph.D.

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Red arrow shows the extent of the Poverty Point culture in the Delta. Click map to visit Mapquest.com. The red arrow on the map shows the extent of the Poverty Point Culture in the Mississippi Delta.

At the culture's peak, around 1500 B.C., i.e., 3,500 years ago, it spanned the Mississippi River and extended almost 100 miles across the Mississippi Delta. It was the first complex culture, the first transegalitarian culture, and possibly the first tribal culture not only in the Delta but probably in what is now America.

Today the Poverty Point Culture consists of many small archaeological sites and two large ones: the Poverty Point site near Epps, Louisiana, and the Jaketown site near Belzoni, Mississippi.

The name "Poverty Point" came from the plantation which once surrounded the Louisiana site.

Delta Dawning

The RV with New Jersey plates barrels down state highway 7 trying to escape the sweltering monotony of the cotton fields in time to find a McDonald's bathroom. Ahead, a John Deere cotton-picker pulls onto the shoulder in a cloud of dust, and the RV hurtles around, horn blaring.

"What is that gosh-awful machine?" the stiff-necked woman asks. "The police should arrest that man for driving on the highway. That is nothing but a wreck waiting to happen."

"I suspect—"

"Oh, drat, Albert, did you see that? That horrible man spit on our RV. Ugh, brown saliva. Must be the muddy water these people drink or all that fried food."

"Hortense, the man was chewing tobac—"

"I told you not to take that last turn, Albert. I have never seen such God-forsaken country, so desolate, so hot. If you had stayed on the interstate, we would have been in Jackson by now."

"But, Hort-cake, this is the scenic route."

"Scenic! My rump. Might as well be driving across a parking lot. No houses, no filling stations, not even a lousy tree. I don't care what the map says. This miserable road does not run into I-20. We are lost, no way to get to Dallas from Bel…Belzona, uh, whatever it's called. Our poor grandchildren, we're never going to see them again. Oh, I could just scream."

To uninformed travelers like Hortense and Albert, the Delta is one big smorgasbord of cotton and soybeans sauteing in the late afternoon heat. Nine-five degrees in the Delta feels hotter than your average July day in Death Valley.

What is scalding, boring flatness to Hortense and Albert actually is a land of big muddy rivers, slow-moving bayous, tupelo swamps, cypress brakes, cutoff lakes, and twisting fingers of high ground bordering streams. The terrain was created over hundreds of thousands of years by the fickle Mississippi River, which wandered back and forth across its valley more times than a river sandbar has grains. Now rich farmland, once watery wilderness, the Delta—the wide bulge in the Mississippi Valley encompassing Mississippi's Yazoo swamp, Louisiana's Tensas swamp, and Arkansas's Arkansas River lowland—was as close to a horn of plenty as wild America had to offer. Its bounty succored generations of Native Americans, and fish was the manna that sustained life, enriched it, and allowed some native Indian peoples to eat their way into social and political opulence. The first complex societies in the Americas were born in the Delta.

The RV barreled along the banks of Wasp Lake. Hortense and Albert sat stiffly in their captain's chairs caught up in a narrow, straight-ahead world of asphalt snakes and heat dancers jitterbugging on the concrete ahead. Sealed in their own small world, they did not hear Fred McDowell's bottleneck rendition of the Levee Camp Blues escaping from the cotton-picker's half-open window. The hardtimes refrain rode thermals down to Wasp Lake joining ripples left by air-gulping gar before slipping beneath muddy waters. The man and woman paid no attention to the Indian mounds lining both sides of highway. These man-made humps might just as well have been anthills.

It's a shame, too. Tourists pay small fortunes, ride big steel birds, and brave religious wars in order to see the ancient pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, unaware they have similarly old monuments in their own backyards. Hollywood-promoted stereotypes of Indians as noble savages or targets for cowboys' six shooters conflict with emerging archaeological views of Delta Indians as master builders and political savants. Why, less than a decade ago, even the best-informed archaeologists did not realize how socially adept these ancient mound builders were.

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Bill Haag and Stu Neitzel dug at Jaketown and Poverty Point in the 1950s and later. Here, these notable archaeologists sip soft drinks after exchanging their field togs for polyester jump suits.
Jaketown is the name given to the mounds and old living areas lining the bank of Wasp Lake near Belzoni, Mississippi. The ancient Jaketowners built eight low, rounded mounds along the outer edge of a half-moon-shaped lobe of high ground and threw out their household trash along the lakefront. Jaketown's trash is archaeologists' treasure, and teams of archaeologists have probed these ancient ruins, once in the 1940s and again in the early 1950s. Led both times by James Ford, Mississippi native and Louisiana adopted son, these digs produced two seminal accounts on Jaketown, one entitled Archaeological Survey in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, 1940-1947, published by Harvard's Peabody Museum, and the other called The Jaketown Site in West-Central Mississippi, published by the American Museum of Natural History.

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University students dig test pits and screen dirt in one of Poverty Point's earthen rings. They receive credit in Archaeology 450, Camping 90, and Life 89.
Other important studies include Archaeological Survey of the Lower Yazoo Basin, 1949-1955, by Harvard's own Philip Phillips, a member of the two early teams, and The Jaketown Site, Surface Collections from a Poverty Point Regional Center in the Yazoo Basin, Mississippi, by Geoffrey Lehmann, a young whippersnapper from Mississippi. Phillips' two-volume work was published by Peabody Museum, and Lehmann's by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Even today, Jaketown continues to challenge the intellect and quicken the pulse; archaeologists Joe Saunders and Thurman Allen are now pulling solid soil columns from Jaketown trying to figure out what the grounds were like when Jaketowners lived there and precisely how long ago that was.

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Field forms are filled out by excavators and used as a record of finds and soil characteristics.
The Albert-Hortense duo fled past the once-bustling hive of activity without realizing what was really behind the mirages dancing atop the dusty cotton bolls. And without caring! Thirty-five centuries ago, Jaketown families sanctified these grounds with their living, loving, and dying. Their lost and broken gear and tool-making residue litter the grounds and are deeply buried by long-ago backwater deposits and mound-fill dirt. Their handicrafts were all made of natural materials—stone, bone, wood, clay, and other substances. Spear points (the bow and arrow was not yet in use), gorgets (weights used on spear-throwers), plummets (fishnet sinkers), celts (axes or head-bashers), and dozens of other tools, such as hammers, choppers, abraders, drills, saws, and adzes, were all made from rock, as were the small key-shaped perforators used to drill holes in stone and other hard substances. In fact, these small hole makers are so common and so representative of the technology of the time and place that archaeologists call them Jaketown perforators.

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Cooking balls were used to prepare meals. Dozens of the objects were heated in a bonfire and dropped in pits along with food. Different shapes controlled cooking temperatures and cooking time.
Food was still prepared the old-fashioned way—roasted over open fires or stone-boiled in water-tight containers. But tasty meals also were cooked in a new, ingenious baking appliance, the earth oven. Earth ovens were three- to five-gallon bucket-size pits dug in the ground and heated with preheated hand-molded earthen cooking balls. Food was wrapped and placed in the pit, hot earthen balls added, and pits covered to prevent heat loss. Oven temperature and cooking time were regulated by the shapes and numbers of heating objects placed in the pits. Remember the law we had to memorize in high school physics having to do with smooth objects holding heat longer than those with a lot of wrinkles? There were not enough pottery and stone vessels to have expedited everyday cooking. Instead, their scarcity suggests they were serving dishes for dignitaries and for sacramental offerings—the good China and sacred drinking mugs.

Jaketowners were concerned with matters besides cooking and cleaning and keeping their tools sharp. They worried about their looks, their social lives, their politics and security, and their
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Poverty Point people made small, crude human figures for magical purposes.
relationship with the Great Spirit and the forces of nature. They fashioned objects and held feasts, ceremonies, dances, ballgames, and ritual observances that honored and sanctified their traditions and sacred beliefs, old and new. And these concerns were so intertwined that they cannot be separated in practice or in theory, nor should we try. Beads, for example, were made from pretty red and green rocks and worn by personages in order to look good and deliver a message of social prominence. Pendants, quartz crystals, and other ornaments were worn as fashion statements and were carried in medicine bags as amulets and fetishes—good-luck charms and manifestations of guardian spirit helpers enabling their owners to manipulate an animistic world filled with ghosts, spirits, and unseen forces.


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Artisans carved ornaments and fetishes from stone and cold-hammered others from native copper. Such objects signaled social status and helped control their spirit-filled world.
One of the most powerful fetishes was a flat carving of a helmeted leader or supernatural being, which may portray Jaketown's founder or culture hero. But the most expressive of their creations were the mounds. Mounds were powerful cosmic metaphors—microcosms of the universe and symbols of creation, of the birth of humanity. Jaketown's people built these mounds to celebrate life and commemorate who they were as a people. Mounds symbolized home, one of humankind's most heart-felt and community-unifying emotions. As vessels holding consecrated earth and as monuments depicting natural order and its ritualized rhythms, mounds conferred protection from dark powers that pervaded people's surroundings. They provided security systems that worked for as long as there were believers.

Hortese and Albert motored right through Jaketown's mounds oblivious to the ancient human saga that transformed this muddy lake bank into hallowed ground. To them, Jaketown was nothing more than a cottony white blur and a wavy mirage. By rushing to Interstate 20 as fast as they could, they also were destined to by-pass another of the Delta's most notable towns of the second pre-Christian millennium, Poverty Point.

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Epps, Louisiana: Welcome to Poverty Point.
Located about a hundred miles west of Jaketown across the Big Muddy near Epps, Louisiana, Poverty Point was the largest native settlement in mainland North America until it finally was outgrown by a handful of places more than two thousand years after its fires were extinguished. Known as the Place of Rings because of its set of six, nested, semicircular earthen embankments, Poverty Point has lent its name to the culture of the day, the mainstream pattern of life in the Delta and in other spots further down the Lower Mississippi Valley.


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Clarence Webb is considered the father of Poverty Point archaeology. Here, sometime in the 1960s, he trudges through soybeans after a hot day of digging at the Teoc Creek site in the Mississippi Delta.
Poverty Point was investigated by government archaeologists from the Smithsonian Institution right after the Last Unpleasantness and later, but it was James Ford, the same zealot who investigated Jaketown, and his associates who drew national and international attention to Poverty Point. In the mid-1950s their expeditions disclosed just how enigmatic this ancient town and its monumental earthworks were. Ford's seminal report, written with Clarence Webb, a Shreveport pediatrician, and entitled Poverty Point, a Late Archaic Site in Louisiana, was published by the American Museum of Natural History. Webb continued the Poverty Point investigations and later penned The Poverty Point Culture, a book published by Louisiana State University.

Click the cover art and check out Jon's book at Amazon.com.
Another book on Poverty Point is titled Ancient Mounds of Poverty Point, Place of Rings, a University Press of Florida production. I wrote that one.

Jaketown and Poverty Point were contemporary. Their residents visited, traded, competed in stickball, danced together, and intermarried. But for all their interaction, Jaketown remained a country village while Poverty Point became the principal town and religious center in Delta country. Technologically and materially, Poverty Point and Jaketown shared similar traditions, but they were as day and night when it came down to how many folks lived inside their town limits and closeby, the extent of their civil arrangements, the effectiveness of their leadership, and just how much capital—raw material and human—was available to support public construction, long-distance exchange, and intertribal deal-making.

The Louisiana Division of Archaeology web page contains a Virtual book on Poverty Point written by Jon Gibson. It contains maps, drawings, photos, and technical information.
Take exchange, for instance. Although Jaketown took part in and may have even been an important trade outpost for the enterprise, Poverty Point was the ultimate destination for incoming goods. Poverty Point stone dealers tapped into a wide range of resources from the North American midcontinent: copper from the Great Lakes, galena—a native lead ore—from the Upper Mississippi River in Iowa, soapstone from the Appalachian piedmont, and tons of flint and other materials from the Ouachita Mountains, Missouri's tablerock, southern Illinois's Shawnee Hills, Kentucky's Knobs, Tennessee's Appalachian foothills, and places in-between. There is even a piece of obsidian from Wyoming's Rockies. Practically all stone supply areas could have been reached by express dugout using the Mississippi's net of rivers and creeks.

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A typical day's collection picked up from a Poverty Point site in the Missisippi Delta, Louisiana side. Motley points made of imported gray Midwestern flint are Poverty Point hallmarks.
Often, archaeologists point to the Delta's lack of stone as the reason for Poverty Point exchange, but need was not the only reason or even the main one. For thousands of years before Poverty Point culture arose from Delta mud, local peoples simply hiked a day or two deep into the hills lining the Mississippi River and brought back all the brown gravel they needed for their tools. Plus, there were inexhaustible supplies of wood, cane, animal bone, and other organic materials on hand. Although locally available gravels continued to be tapped, Poverty Point people paddled hundreds of miles to get most of their rocks.


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Plummets were fashioned out of heavy iron ore imported from Hot Springs, Arkansas. They served as weights for fish nets.
So, if need was not the main motive, why would smart, practical people go to so much trouble? Because they could. No matter whether jobbers traveled directly to rock outcrops or acquired rock through diplomatic arrangements with intermediaries, keeping home folks supplied with hardware created dependencies and obligations, which, in turn, earned respect, favors, and social standing for the jobbers. Poverty Point's rock supply business was too voluminous and widespread for one or two individuals or a few competing families to run. Lots of people were in the trading business. The exchange peak only lasted a few years, but while it flourished, it engaged suppliers in intertribal diplomatic missions and negotiations, prefabrication of materials at quarry sites, and pickup and transport of materials. After prefab rocks arrived at Poverty Point, they then were meted out locally and regionally according to simple social and political protocols. A share-the-wealth ethic prevailed—exchange rocks preferred for certain tools reached workers' hands without restrictions or showy demonstrations of social standing or politics.

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Aerial photo of Poverty Point showing the six nested rings and the giant bird-shaped mound to the near left of the rings.
Not only did sharing make exchange work, the same ethic leveraged the strength of back and sweat of brow responsible for every grain of dirt in Poverty Point's massive earthworks. Earthworks were symbols of the cosmos and the birth of humanity. They honored a cherished way of life, instilled community pride, and raised awareness of builders'identity. Yet, beneath the cloak of civic consciousness and social magnanimity were private and self-serving motives—repaying debts, building reputation, social climbing, and, probably the most compelling of all, providing protection against things that go bump in the night.

Ingrained in native mythology across the Eastern United States—the land of mound builders—was the time-honored belief that geometric arrangements, circles, arcs, triangles, squares, and other layouts, kept evil spirits at bay and dispelled disharmony built up within. Mesoamerican archaeologist John Clark has found that sacred counts were built into Poverty Point's layout, dimensions, and spacing. Those same numbers, 13, 20, 52, 260, and 365, show up in contemporary monuments in Mexico and Peru and are the basis of the native New World calendar. As cosmic symbols, mounds and embankments provided magical safety and good medicine. So, while good for the whole community, they were just as good for each and every individual—personal desires and public responsibilities indivisible. This is not to say that Poverty Point could have been built without strong leaders, but public construction projects which "kill two birds with one stone" were more likely to win endorsement and gain widespread labor support, freely given. It took smart, strong leaders to recognize the meld and to resist the temptation to assert the power of leadership.

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The penny is for scale (and thoughts). Fat-bellied owl pendants are rare but diagnostic artifacts of Poverty Point Culture. They are found on hunting and fishing camps as well as residential villages. They probably brought supernatural power to their wearers.
Long-distance exchange and grandiose earthworks were great accomplishments considering that Poverty Point people were not farmers. But they didn't need a hoe as long as long as they were able to cast a fishing net with one hand and pile dirt with the other hand. Poverty Point was not your average "blink and you've missed it" town. Many laborers worked on its earthworks. One estimate based on historic mound-building is that Poverty Point was built in less than a decade by some 700 to 800 workers drawn from a total population of between 2000 and 2600. Although population estimates often vary widely and can be used to support practically any reconstruction an archaeologist favors, one thing is certain: Poverty Point's work force was many times larger than those responsible for other large Lower Mississippi mound groups. As a matter of fact, this large population exceeds all populations of complex hunter-gatherers known to ethnographers throughout the world. You may draw your own conclusion from this, but one thing is inescapable—there was no contemporary society like Poverty Point anywhere else on the U.S. mainland, and there would never again be one.

Jon Gibson also wrote a book titled Born And Raised On Castor Creek and about the history of his hometown of Tullos and the nearby towns of Olla and Urania, Louisiana. Get a copy for $15 postage included from:

Centennial Culture Center
P.O. Box 896
Olla, Louisiana 71465-0896

Poverty Point, Jaketown, and affiliated towns and villages were consequences of the Delta's unique course of events and anonymous personages. They were not inevitable outcomes of a relentless evolutionary spiral preset by DNA or survival of the fittest. Poverty Point had its Newton and Einstein, its Getty and Gates, its Beethoven and Presley, its Graham and Grizzard, and, most importantly, its Hashtali and Houdini. Like a footprint on a sandbar, its legacy was carried away by the same mighty river that sustained it.

Carried away? Are you sure? Tell that to someone who has heard the gentle whisperings atop the giant bird mound. Better yet, take off your boots and walk barefooted over Poverty Point's ancient ruins . . . if you dare.

 

Copyright 2002 by Jon Gibson, Ph.D.

Editors note:   Poverty Point expert and distinguished archaeologist Jon L. Gibson has retired. You can reach him via snailmail only at:

                        Jon L. Gibson
                        355 Coleman Loop
                        Homer, Louisiana 71040

For more information on Louisiana and Mississippi archaeology and for an opportunity to hang out with cool people like Jon L. Gibson and John L. Doughty, Jr., consider joining the Louisiana Archaeological Society. Click here and visit the web site.

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