THE POVERTY POINT TIME MACHINE
DEAR READER, I DO NOT propose to take you on a tour of every mound and earthwork site in the United States, nor even of every mound or earthwork site I’ve visited personally. But if you were to rent a car in New Orleans and drive the 800 or so miles north through the Mississippi Valley as far as Cincinnati or a little farther, with time on your hands for some significant side trips east and west, you could plan an interesting journey. Despite the wanton destruction during the past 200 years, some outstanding sites have been saved in Louisiana,1 Mississippi,2 Alabama,3 Tennessee,4 Illinois,5 and Ohio,6 and there are also significant sites in Florida,7 Georgia,8 Texas,9 Arkansas,10 Kentucky,11 and Indiana.12 Other states have mounds and earthworks, too. But in antiquity the North American mound-building phenomenon was centered on the Mississippi River, and on its great Ohio and Missouri tributaries, and this is reflected in the distribution of the surviving sites today.
A number of different “mound-building cultures” have been identified by archaeologists, who have assembled them into categories based on period, location, types of pottery, types of tools, arts and crafts, and other criteria. We’ve already met some of the leading lights in this typology, such as the “Adena” (roughly 1000 BC to 200 BC), presently thought to have been the builders of Serpent Mound, the “Hopewell” (roughly 200 BC to AD 500), who were responsible for Newark and High Bank, and the “Mississippians” (roughly AD 800 to 1600), who built Cahokia.
Archaeologists make routine use of all these labels but also interpolate them with others that filter out of the classroom and into general consciousness, causing confusion all around. Thus, for example, you will not go far in learning about the mound-builders without encountering references to the Woodland Period, which is in turn divided into Early Woodland (1000 BC to 200 BC), Middle Woodland (200 BC to AD 600–800) and Late Woodland (AD 400 to AD 900–1000).13 Allowing for some oversimplification of a complicated picture, the Adena culture built its mounds and earthworks during the Early Woodland period. The Hopewell culture built its mounds and earthworks during the Middle Woodland period. The Coles Creek culture was prominent during the Late Woodland period. The Late Woodland period in turn overlaps with the Early Mississippian period.
But these are no more than artificial constructs that help tidy-minded archaeologists preserve a sense of order and control over otherwise dangerously unruly data—and, besides, we must question how much the types of utensils and tools used by a culture actually tell us anything of value. We wouldn’t expect to gather crucial information about modern cultures from their knives, forks, hammers, and screwdrivers, so why should we suddenly set different standards when we try to understand the ancient world?
Undoubtedly many different Native American cultures, speaking many different languages, were involved in the construction of the mounds. Undoubtedly their arts and crafts and tools and pottery differed. Undoubtedly they expressed themselves in many different ways. Yet when it came to their earthworks, for some mysterious reason, they all did the same things, in the same ways, repeatedly reiterating the same memes linking great geometrical complexes on the ground to events in the sky.
It represents a catastrophic loss of memory for our species, something akin to a madman smashing his own brains out, that there was such wholesale destruction of the Native American earthworks during the rapid growth of the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To give credit where credit is due, it is entirely because of the excellent, dedicated, meticulous surgery of archaeologists that anything has been salvaged from the wreck at all—and as it turns out, quite a lot has been salvaged.
In consequence, whether we are viewing the handiwork of the Adena, such as Serpent Mound, or of the Hopewell, such as Newark and High Bank, or of the Mississippians, such as Cahokia, no sentient person can doubt the prodigious scale of this Native American achievement. There can be no doubt either that geometers and astronomers were in every case central to the enterprise. Nor is there doubt about when the enterprise came to an end— around AD 1600 in yet another catastrophic consequence of the European conquest of North America.
But when did it begin?
I’M OUT NEAR THE WESTERN edge of Poverty Point, a very mysterious archaeological site in northeast Louisiana, climbing the second biggest earthwork mound in North America. Built around 1430 BC,14 a century before the pharaoh Tutankhamun took the throne in ancient Egypt, it’s often referred to as “Bird Mound,” because of a supposed resemblance to a bird with outstretched wings flying east. Slumped and ruined in places, it does have something of that appearance today, particularly when viewed from the air, but an archaeological reconstruction of how the entire mound would have looked in antiquity does not support the bird interpretation. More prosaically and more usually, therefore, it’s known simply as Mound A.
It reaches 72 feet in height.15 Monks Mound at Cahokia, 500 miles to the north, is taller by 28 feet, and also more massive, but 2,500 years younger and the work of a settled agricultural civilization. Mound A, on the other hand, was made by hunter-gatherers,16 as was the entire Poverty Point complex, where the oldest element of the site, Mound B, has been dated as early as 1740 BC.17
The sides of Mound A at its base measure 710 feet east to west and 660 feet north to south (as compared to 720 feet east to west and 910 feet north to south for Monks Mound). Mound A’s volume is estimated at 8.4 million cubic feet, a number hard to visualize, but Diana Greenlee, station archaeologist at Poverty Point, offers a good analogy. “Take a standard American football field,” she suggests, “and make it 146 feet tall. It’s that much dirt.”18
Some archaeologists still give credence to the notion that Mound A is an enormous bird effigy since “birds are important within the iconography of Native Americans past and present of the southeastern United States.”19 But not so long ago, just as was the case with Monks Mound, the experts felt they didn’t need to invoke Native Americans, or indeed any human agency, to explain Mound A. It and Motley Mound (2 kilometers north of the Poverty Point complex) were judged to be:
Of natural origin, solitary outliers, the only ones for many miles in any direction, of the geological formations found in the bluffs to the east and the west of the Mississippi river; islands left by the drainage which cut the present river valley. Their appearance would easily deceive someone who was not somewhat familiar with such deposits.20
This confident piece of misinformation, put out in 1928 by respected archaeologist Gerard Fowke, was among a number of factors that delayed proper investigation and recognition of Poverty Point. And again, as happened at Monks Mound, when the amazing structure could no longer be shrugged off as natural there were still many who sought to deny Native Americans the credit for it, attributing it instead to some imaginary group of prehistoric Caucasian settlers who in the course of time were overrun by “savage” Native Americans.21
All archaeologists now agree that the half dozen mounds and other earthworks at Poverty Point are man-made. All agree likewise that Caucasian settlers (no matter how appealing the idea continues to prove with the general public) were NOT in any way involved, and that Native Americans made them. Such disputes and debates as did occur on the road to reaching these conclusions were more around the level of sophistication of the site, the amount of manpower thought necessary to build it, and the degree of socioeconomic complexity that would have been required to see it through.
We’ll not go into detail here, since we’ve seen already that the mainstream view for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was that large-scale monumental constructions like Mound A at Poverty Point could only have been made by equally “large-scale, centralised and hierarchical societies” that had “the administrative means to carry out such achievements and to organise the large, settled populations whose labour is required.”22 Hunter-gatherers, the prevailing theory proclaimed, could never have generated sufficient surpluses, nor put the necessary hierarchical organization in place, to make such projects viable. Living from hand to mouth, their concerns were entirely focused on survival. Productive agricultural societies, by contrast, were wealthy enough to lift the burden of the daily struggle to survive from the shoulders of talented individuals, thus allowing a class of specialists— architects, surveyors, engineers, astronomers, and others—to emerge and to master their skills.
It was realized from the first archaeological surveys in the 1950s that Poverty Point was ancient, but it was not initially assumed to be very ancient. Hitherto the oldest mounds in America north of Mexico were thought to be Early Woodland (e.g., Adena) in origin, dating between 1000 BC and 200 BC —although clustered toward the latter end of that period. Two initial C-14 dates, explains Professor Jon L. Gibson of the University of Louisiana, “seemed to indicate that the Poverty Point mounds were not only contemporary with Early Woodland but overlapped the earliest part of the Middle Woodland Hopewellian mound-building period.”23 In consequence, “pushing the mounds back to the time of Poverty Point was not that drastic a conceptual jump.”24
Indeed, despite being older than any other mounds previously encountered by archaeologists in North America, the evidence from Poverty Point was accepted with relative ease. That it was not the subject of the usual catfights and rival claims, Gibson suggests, was in part because of the general assumption of the profession in the 1950s and 1960s that “mound building, pottery, agriculture, sedentism, and large populations were … an integrated complex. … This all or nothing association … promoted the assumption of an agricultural base for Poverty Point despite the lack of direct evidence.”25
Nor would direct evidence of agriculture ever be forthcoming, for, as subsequent excavations have proved, Poverty Point was not the work of agriculturalists, but of hunter-gatherers.26 This was paradigm-busting in its way, but archaeologists do hate a busted paradigm, so some wriggle room was found. “Planned large-scale earthworks,” commented Science magazine in 1997, “were previously considered to be beyond the leadership and organisational skills of seasonally mobile hunter-gatherers. Poverty Point was considered the exception, and its extensive trade was cited as evidence for sophisticated socioeconomic organisation.”27