Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Part 8: America before: The Key to Earth's Lost Civilization...The Poverty Point Time Machine...Glimpses Behind the Evil

America before: The Key to Earth’s Lost Civilization 

By Graham Hancock



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

Schematic of Poverty Point indicating principal mounds and geometric ridges.

The notion that trade rather than agriculture fostered a sufficiently complex and prosperous society to get the mounds built proved satisfactory to most archaeologists. The two younger (“Hopewellian”) dates turned up in the initial excavations subsequently proved to be out of context. No one now disputes that the oldest structures at Poverty Point go back to around 1700 BC—fully 1,500 years earlier than the first Hopewell earthworks—that the site flourished for 600 years, and that it was abandoned and left deserted at around 1100 BC.28 

THERE ARE SIX MOUNDS AT Poverty Point, labeled A, B, C, D, E, and F. Of these Mound B is the oldest, perhaps as old as 1740 BC, as we’ve seen. Mound F, where construction began sometime after 1280 BC,29 is the youngest. And Mound D (also known as “Sarah’s Mound”) was not the work of the Poverty Point culture at all, but was a much later addition by the Coles Creek culture some time after AD 700.30  

Thus it is the four mounds, A, B, C, and E, that form the key elevations of old Poverty Point. Mound A looms massively over all of them. Despite its huge presence, however, it is not the definitive feature of the site, and neither are any of the other mounds. That role is reserved for a complex earthwork consisting of a series of six concentric ridges, originally up to 9 feet high, forming together a gigantic geometrical figure resembling a half octagon or the letter C, with a diameter of ¾ of a mile. When the lengths of all the ridges are added together they total almost 7 miles.31 The ridge crests are up to 100 feet wide, as are the ditches between the ridges, but they were much damaged by plowing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and today vary from a few inches to at the most about 6 feet in height.32 

When archaeology began at Poverty Point in 1952, the ridges were so insignificant that they went unnoticed for about a year. The late William G. Haag, one of the original excavators, gave a candid account 33 of his reaction when he saw them for the first time in aerial photographs shown to him in 1953 by his colleague James Ford—who didn’t initially reveal where the photographs had been taken: 

“You know where that site is?” Ford asked. 

“Well, it’s got to be in the Ohio River Valley,” Haag replied. “No place, except that area in the East where you get complex earthworks like that.” 

Haag clearly had in mind the geometrical earthworks of Ohio, such as High Bank and Newark, reviewed in the last chapter, but he was in for a surprise. 

“You’ve walked all over that site,” said Ford. 

“Not I,” insisted Haag. “I’ve never been to that site.” But then doubt set in, he looked closer and finally exclaimed: “That’s Poverty Point!” 

Haag may have been a little slow in recognizing the ridges, but he was decades ahead of everyone else when he joined forces with astronomer Kenneth Brecher 34 in 1980 to coauthor a paper in the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society titled “The Poverty Point Octagon: World’s Largest Prehistoric Solstice Marker.”35 

Haag and Brecher supposed the ridges had once formed a complete octagon but that the eastern half had been “washed away.” However: 

The western half is intact and well-defined. It is intersected in four places by broad avenues, radiating out from a common center. … The west-northwest and westsouthwest avenues have astronomical azimuths of approximately 299 degrees and 241 degrees respectively, accurately pointing to the summer and winter solstice sunset directions at the latitude of the site (32 degrees 37' N).36 

Subsequent research proved Haag and Brecher wrong in their assumption that the Poverty Point ridges had originally formed an octagonal shape,37 a matter that anyway has no bearing on their solstice thesis, which depends exclusively on the angles of the avenues in what survives of the figure today. 

If they’re right about this, then it would confirm a much deeper lineage for the astronomical and geometrical memes that we’ve followed back in time through the Mississippian and Hopewell and Adena earthworks. 

IN THE JANUARY 1983 ISSUE of American Antiquity the alignments along the avenues that Haag and Brecher had proposed were questioned by Robert Purrington, an astronomer at Tulane University. He agreed that in the epoch of Poverty Point, “the sun would have set, at the solstices, at azimuths of 279 241 degrees and 299 degrees .”38 He disagreed, however, that these were the azimuths of the west-southwest and west-northwest avenues, which he put at 239 degrees and 290 degrees, respectively. He concluded that these avenues “very poorly mark the solstices. … There are no obvious solar alignments.”39 

Haag and Brecher responded in the same issue that the discrepancy between their azimuths and those of Purrington appeared “to arise mainly from the difference in the location of the center of the earthwork. “Purrington,” they complained, “has located the viewing center at least 100 m to the east-northeast of the center we have found.”40 They repeated their assertion that “for the latitude of Poverty Point, the summer and winter solstice sunset azimuths are 241 degrees and 299 degrees , respectively, in good agreement with the orientations of the southwest and northwest avenues. Such a solstitial alignment, while not surprising, seems hard to doubt in the Poverty Point earthwork.”41 

Purrington continued to sound like he doubted it, yet in a confusing and self-contradictory manner. In 1989 he published a paper in Archaeoastronomy titled “Poverty Point Revisited: Further Consideration of Astronomical Alignments.”42 In it he recalculated the azimuth of the westsouthwest avenue from his previous figure of 239 degrees to a revised figure of 240 degrees that, he now stated, gave “an excellent match to the setting of the sun at the winter solstice (241 degrees ).43 His azimuth for the west-northwest avenue, however, remained the same as before at 290 degrees, thus missing “the summer solstice setting azimuth by as much as 9 degrees” and therefore “almost certainly not intended to mark this solar standstill. The symmetry of the site then suggests that neither is a solar solstice alignment.”44 As a final equivocation, however, Purrington conceded that “a counter-argument would take into account the special importance attached to the winter solstice standstill by the native American Indians.”45 

There the matter rested until 2006, when archaeologists launched a magnetic gradiometer survey at Poverty Point. Completed in 2011, the survey revealed the traces of no fewer than thirty great circles of wooden posts that had once stood in the plaza east of the geometric ridges, “some built only inches away from the previous ones, as if the posts were erected, removed sometime later, moved a slight distance, then rebuilt.”46 

According to archaeologist Diana Greenlee, who was closely involved in all aspects of the investigation, the post holes located were straight-sided and flat-bottomed, nearly 1 meter wide and 2 meters deep, while the circles they formed varied in diameter from 6 meters to 60 meters.47 Unfortunately, though, as Greenlee concedes, the project was confined almost exclusively to remote sensing: 

We didn’t excavate a complete circle, or even a significant arc of one. So there is a lot we don’t know about the circles. We don’t know how many different kinds of post circles are represented. We don’t know how high the posts were. We don’t know if there were walls between the posts. We don’t know if they had roofs. We don’t know what, if anything, they did inside the circles. We don’t know how many post circles were visible in the plaza at any one time. Someday I hope to excavate a larger area of the plaza circles so that we can find answers to these questions.48 

One possibility, surely worthy of further investigation, is that what the survey found were the archaeological fingerprints of a series of “woodhenges” at Poverty Point. Very much like the Woodhenge at Cahokia —also constantly moved and adjusted, as we saw in chapter 18—they were perhaps used in conjunction with other features to create sight lines that would manifest sky-ground hierophanies at the solstices and equinoxes. 

At any rate, even without the circles, the case for significant solar alignments at Poverty Point was greatly strengthened when Ohio archaeologist and archaeoastronomer William Romain, one of the sharpest thinkers in this field, rolled up his sleeves and got involved. His paper on the subject, coauthored with Norman L. Davis and published in Louisiana Archaeology in 2011, used newly acquired Lidar data, and refined archaeoastronomical calculations, to conclude that “Brecher and Haag were right in their assessment more than thirty years ago—i.e. Poverty Point does incorporate solstice alignments … [and] may indeed be the world’s largest solstice marker.”49 

The alignments, however, turn out not to be those that Brecher and Haag originally proposed. Instead, with the advantage of the new data, Romain and Davis were able to identify two locations “of special importance in the design of Poverty Point.” Referring to these locations as Design Point 1 (DP1) and Design Point 2 (DP2) they note: 

- Line DP1 to Mound B is aligned to the summer solstice sunset. 

- Line DP1 to Mound E is aligned to the winter solstice sunset. 

- Viewed from Mound C, the summer solstice sun will set over Mound B. 

- Viewed from Mound C, the winter solstice sun will appear to set not over but rather into the side of Mound A. The placement of Mound C … allowed for a long sight line to Mound A, but also resulted in the location for Mound A in a place that seems not-symmetrical with the overall site plan. 

- A line from DP1 through the central plaza of the site marks the azimuth of the equinox sunset along the northern edge of Mound A.50 

According to Davis, an eyewitness to the latter phenomenon, the sun appears to “roll down the northern edge of Mound A before sinking into the western horizon.”51  

Poverty Point is “a center place,” Romain and Davis assert, “and also a place of balance in the sense that, in addition to the sunset alignments … conceptually opposite sunrise alignments are also found.”52 These they detail as follows: 

- Viewed from DP2, the summer solstice sun will rise over Mound C. 

- Viewed from DP2, the winter solstice sun will rise over Mound D. If in fact Mound D was constructed more than 2,000 years after the Poverty Point florescence, then the implication is that the people of the Coles Creek culture understood, incorporated, and further expanded upon the Poverty Point design for their own purposes. 

- Viewed from DP2, the equinox sun will rise in alignment with DP1.53 

The overall achievement—the “seamless integration of site orientation, celestial alignments, bilateral symmetry of design points, internal geometry and regularities in mensuration”54—leads Romain and Davis to conclude that “Poverty Point was built according to a preconceived master plan … or design template … that integrated astronomical alignments, geometric shapes and local topography.”55 

In their view, the question that begs to be answered is, “Why? Why was Poverty Point designed in such a way that it connects geometric earthen forms to celestial bodies and events at such a massive scale?”56 

It’s an excellent question, but another should be asked first. 

If there was a “preconceived master plan,” where did it come from? 

THE SOUTHERNMOST OF THE POVERTY Point mounds is Mound E, also known as “Ballcourt Mound.” Just 2.6 kilometers farther south, however, is another mound, once thought to have been part of the Poverty Point complex. Known as Lower Jackson Mound, excavations by archaeologists Joe Saunders and Thurman Allen have established that it is in fact extremely ancient—not from the Poverty Point era around 1700 BC at all, but from fully 3,000 years earlier, specifically between 3955 and 3655 BC.57 

“That Poverty Point builders were aware of ancient mounds is beyond doubt,” comments John Clark, professor of anthropology at Brigham Young University: 

The entire layout of Greater Poverty Point is calibrated to the position of Lower Jackson, a Middle Archaic mound. All principal measuring grids pass through Lower Jackson, and calculated space appears to have commenced from there.58 

What Jon L. Gibson of the University of Louisiana makes of the same evidence is that there must have been “an enduring traditional, if not direct ancestral, connection between the Old People and later groups.”59 This connection, he argues, is “demonstrated by the incorporation of the Middle Archaic Lower Jackson Mound into the principal earthwork axis at Poverty Point. Actually, Lower Jackson Mound was not merely incorporated—it furnished the alpha datum, the anchor, a vivid case of material or implicit memory.60

The suggestions, made by Clark in 2004 and Gibson in 2006, were followed up in 2011 by William Romain. The results of his Lidar survey 285 greatly strengthen the case that “Poverty Point was intentionally oriented to true north” along “the sightline between Mounds E-A-B and the Lower Jackson Mound.”61 

The implications of a connection between the Lower Jackson moundbuilders and their successors at Poverty Point are intriguing for many reasons. 

The “intrusive” Mound D, built by the Coles Creek culture at least 1,800 years after Poverty Point was abandoned, and more than 2,000 years after works peaked there, appears to have been deliberately located to create an alignment to the winter solstice sunrise. In William Romain’s view, as we’ve seen, this suggests that the people of the Coles Creek culture “understood, incorporated, and further expanded upon the Poverty Point design.” 

The suggestion, therefore, is that below the radar of archaeology more than 2 millennia of continuously transmitted knowledge connected the Coles Creek culture to the Poverty Point culture. 

Now, going much further back in time, Gibson proposes continuity across the earlier 2,000-year gap between the builders of Lower Jackson Mound and Poverty Point. 

These are long periods of time to maintain any kind of connection, but such a feat is by no means impossible. The Judaic faith, for example, carries down a body of traditions and beliefs that are at least 3,000 years old.62 Hinduism has roots going back to the Indus Valley civilization more than 5,000 years ago.63 Both religions also create architecture, the design of which is directly influenced by their beliefs and traditions. 

There’s no reason in principle why the same sort of thing should not have happened in North America. The notion that Lower Jackson Mound and Poverty Point are each manifestations in different eras of a single system of ideas is the only way, other than coincidence, to account for the obviously deliberate axial relationship between the two sites. If the earlier mound had not been significant for the later builders, then they surely would not have used it to “anchor” the great enterprise on which they were about to embark. 

But there’s a problem. In the cases of Hinduism and Judaism we have unimpeachable evidence of continuity. Through sacred texts, through teachings passed from one generation to the next, and through cherished and vibrant traditions, there are no broken links in the chain of transmission.  Neither Hinduism nor Judaism have ever abruptly vanished from the face of the earth, left zero traces of their presence for millennia, and then equally abruptly reappeared in full flower. 

As we’ll see, however, this appears to be exactly what happened in North America.

THE REMOTE EPOCH BETWEEN 6,000 AND 5,000 years ago out of which Lower Jackson Mound emerges is an important one in the story of civilization. It was toward the end of this same millennium that the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt took their first confident steps on the stage of history. They, too, built mounds—for example, Egypt’s predynastic mastabas or the tells of Uruk-period Mesopotamia. They, too, deployed geometry and astronomical alignments in the project of sacralizing architectural spaces. And they, too, participated in an extraordinary and seemingly coordinated burst of early construction—for just like the mounds of ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia, Lower Jackson Mound is not an isolated case but part of what may once have been a very numerous and widespread group of monuments. 

Just how numerous and widespread we may never hope to know because of the wholesale destruction of thousands of mounds and earthworks across North America in recent centuries. No doubt most of those ancient monuments, sacrificed to the modern gods of agriculture and industry, were from the more recent periods—Mississippian, Hopewell, and so on—but chances are that some, and perhaps many, were from the much earlier episode of mound-building dating back to 5,000 years ago and more. 

From what remains we can begin to gauge the extent of the loss and by 2012, despite the destruction of ancient sites, archaeologists had identified as many as 97 surviving mounds and earthworks in the Lower Mississippi 288 Valley, with several others found as far afield as Florida, thought to be in the range of 5,000 years old.1 Very few of these sites have yet been subject to radiometric dating, but of the 16 that have, with a combined total of 53 mounds and 13 causeways, all are more than 4,700 years old 2—and many are much older than that. 

As a result, says Joe Saunders, a leading specialist in this field, “the existence of Middle Archaic mound-building is no longer questioned.”3 

Why there should be such a concentration of these archaic sites in the Lower Mississippi Valley is unclear. It could be an accident of history—that is, purely by chance more old sites survived destruction in this area than elsewhere. Or it could be that many more sites were built here in antiquity than elsewhere and this is why more have survived. Who knows? Perhaps future research will reveal very ancient mounds much farther afield in North America. For the present, however, the Lower Mississippi Valley is where the action is. 

It’s unnecessary to describe every site. Indeed only one, Watson Brake, need concern us in any detail. For the rest, the map and the minimal listing below, substantiated by references for readers who wish to dig deeper, will serve the purpose. 

The Banana Bayou Mounds and the so-called LSU Mounds (because they are on the grounds of Louisiana State University) date to around 2700 BC,4 which, in a global context, makes them about 200 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza. 

After that, the mounds of the Lower Mississippi Valley just keep on getting older. We’ve already spoken of Lower Jackson Mound (3955 to 3655 BC). Here are some of the others: 

Ancient Mound Sites of the Lower Mississippi Valley. 
One C-14 date suggests that mound-building may have begun as early as 3590 BC; others suggest a range of 3400 to 3300 BC.5 

C-14 dates range from 3600 to 3000 BC.6 

C-14 supports a date of 3570 BC.7 A significantly older date of 4610 BC—almost 7,000 years ago—was derived from an excavated hearth.8 

HEDGEPETH MOUNDS The earliest mound date is 4930 BC—again, very close to 7,000 years ago.

A charcoal sample from a cremation platform within one of the mounds yielded a date of 4240 BC.10 Two other charcoal samples from a small platform mound produced dates of 5030 to 5500 BC11—moving past 7,000 years ago and toward 7,500 years ago. 

Eight radiocarbon dates securely locate the site between 7,500 and 8,000 years ago.12 290 

BOTH IN TERMS OF QUANTITY and of quality, Watson Brake has been the subject of more thorough, sustained, and wide-ranging scientific scrutiny than any of the other sites that are 5,000 years old or older. Moreover, it is only at Watson Brake that the excavations and archaeological research have been accompanied by detailed archaeoastronomical assessments, allowing comparison with the later Adena, Hopewellian, and Mississippian sites reviewed in previous chapters. 

So it is Watson Brake we’ll focus on here. 

First, and it is good the reader should harbor no illusions in this regard, not a single item has been excavated at Watson Brake that in any way suggests the presence of an advanced material culture. The people who built the mounds and lived at the site intermittently—or perhaps more permanently— over a period of many hundreds of years used stone tools and points that are typical of the Middle Archaic period. They were hunter-gatherers, not agriculturalists, and although they did gather plants that would later be domesticated, they did not domesticate these plants themselves. In other words, they lived simply, close to the earth, and were in every way a normal and representative population for this part of North America 5,000 or 6,000 years ago.13 

In every way, that is, except one. 

They built mounds. Referring to the sites listed above (and a handful of others I didn’t list), Joe Saunders writes: 

The earliest … earthworks in the Lower Mississippi Valley appear to have been made by autonomous societies. Practically speaking, it is difficult for 16 Middle Archaic mound sites spanning 1,000 years of prehistory in three subregions of Louisiana … not to look autonomous. 

But there must have been some communion among the autonomous societies because there are too many shared traits that cross the vast expanses of the Lower Mississippi Valley, and there is no evidence of other monuments being made elsewhere. If all Middle Archaic mound sites were spontaneous creations, would they not occur spontaneously elsewhere as well?14 

Sadly, Saunders passed away on September 4, 2017. Formerly regional archaeologist and professor of geosciences at the University of Louisiana, he was the acknowledged expert on Watson Brake and its lead excavator. It was his paper, “A Mound Complex in Louisiana at 5400–5000 Years Before the Present,” published in Science on September 19, 1997,15 that effectively put Watson Brake on the map, preempting arguments that might otherwise have arisen around the dates of the site with a meticulous, comprehensive, and wide-ranging body of evidence. 

“There’s just no question about it,” said Jon Gibson at the time. “Saunders has come at it from too many different angles.”16 

And Vincas Steponaitis of the University of North Carolina commented: “It’s rare that archaeologists ever find something that so totally changes our picture of what happened in the past, as is true for this case.”17 

Certainly Watson Brake did change the picture archaeologists had of the past, delivering the death blow to the tired old prejudice, already mortally wounded by Poverty Point, that hunter-gatherer societies were somehow constitutionally incapable of complex large-scale constructions. 

And as it turns out, despite its low-maintenance material culture, the site itself is sophisticated and precociously clever. 

LIKE SERPENT MOUND, WATSON BRAKE was built on a natural elevation, in this case a terrace dating back to the depths of the Ice Age overlooking the 12,000-year-old floodplain of the Ouachita River with its tributary stream the Watson Bayou.18 And in just the way that Serpent Mound stands above Brush Creek, Watson Brake stands above Watson Bayou,19 creating the illusion that the mounds are 5 or 10 meters higher than they actually are.20 

In the case of Serpent Mound, in front of the effigy’s gaping jaws, the reader will recall the presence of an earthwork enclosure in the form of a great oval. Although complicated by the integration of mounds into the figure, and on a much larger scale, Watson Brake is also an earthwork  enclosure forming a distinct and unmistakable oval, with a long axis of 370 meters and a short axis of 280 meters.21

Watson Brake site plan.

There is some disagreement as to whether the total number of mounds at Watson Brake should be counted as eleven or twelve because one, designated Mound L, requires further archaeological verification. It also lies outside the border of the oval formation so firmly demarcated by the other eleven mounds and their interconnecting embankments—these latter being in the range of 20 meters wide and about 1 meter high.22 The plaza contained within the embankments covers an area of 9 hectares (about 22 acres)23 and appears to have been artificially leveled.24 The excavators found it to be almost completely sterile of artifacts or debris, “suggesting its use as ritual space.”25 

“Apparently daily activities did not occur in the enclosure,” comments Saunders.26 By contrast, however, “daily activities,” suggestive of resident populations, certainly did occur on the wide embankments surrounding the enclosure, particularly on the northeastern side.27 

In a major study published in American Antiquity in 2005 Saunders reports that the initial occupation of the site took place as early as 4000 BC 28 and that:

The first occupants came to Watson Brake to fish, hunt deer and gather plants in every season of the year. Prolonged visits probably occurred. … The construction of the first minor earthworks began around 3500 BC, with Mounds K and B (and possibly A) followed by midden accumulations where Mounds D and C, and to the south I and J, and E were subsequently built. This suggests that the shape of the complex was deliberately laid out by 3500 BC. Major building projects then commenced ca. 3350 BC and existing earthworks may have been heightened and extended along the north mound row. Mound J was erected on the south side at around 3000 BC. Site occupation was concentrated along the terrace escarpment before construction began and continued after the earthworks were completed.29 

The relative “residential stability and autonomy” evidenced at Watson Brake, Saunders concludes, were made possible by “the diversity and abundance of resources” in the local area.30 

It seems almost superfluous to state, however, that those resources and the stability they promoted could have been exploited efficiently without the mounds. Indeed they were exploited for the 500 years when humans were present at the site who built no mounds at all between 4000 BC and 3500 BC. 

And then, suddenly … mounds. 

Why? What could have prompted this colossal architectural enterprise? What was its purpose? 

“I know it sounds pretty Zen like,” Saunders speculated when he was asked this question in 1997, “but maybe the answer is that building them was the purpose.”31 

MAYBE. BUT I’M TRYING TO envisage how the community leaders or influencers would have sold that to the population. Somehow, “We want you to build these mounds because building them will be a good thing for you to do” doesn’t sound like a winning line to me. And when we remember that in the same period mounds and earthworks were also being built at other scattered sites belonging to separate, autonomous communities across the Lower Mississippi Valley, it becomes increasingly obvious that a powerful and far reaching social phenomenon must have been at work.  

After years of field research, excavations, and on-site measurements, Kenneth Sassman of the Laboratory of Southeastern Archaeology, and Michael Heckenberger of the University of Florida are convinced that at least three of these sites—Watson Brake, Caney Mounds, and Frenchman’s Bend —share the same basic design:32 

The plan we infer from the spatial arrangement of Archaic mounds consists of a series of proportional and geometric regularities, including (1) a “terrace” line of three or more earthen mounds oriented along an alluvial terrace escarpment; (2) placement of the largest mound of each complex in the terrace-edge group, typically in a central position; (3) placement of the second-largest mound at a distance roughly 1.4 times that between members of the terrace-edge group; (4) a line connecting the largest and second-largest … mound (herein referred to as the “baseline”) set at an angle that deviates roughly 10 degrees from a line orthogonal to [i.e., at right angles to] the terrace line; and (5) an equilateral triangle oriented to the baseline that intercepts other mounds of the complex and appears to have formed a basic unit of proportionality.33 

I won’t attempt to describe Frenchman’s Bend or the several other sites that Sassman and Heckenberger believe may also fit this pattern.34 Watson Brake and Caney can stand for them all. Again a long story must be cut short since these two sites tick all the boxes listed above, but perhaps the most striking outcome of Sassman and Heckenberger’s study is the clear evidence they’ve produced for a shared geometrical plan involving the mounds designated A, E, I, and J at Watson Brake and mounds B, F, E, and D at Caney. 

In both cases the line that Sassman and Heckenberger call the “baseline” between the largest and second-largest mounds (A and E at Watson Brake; B and F at Caney) forms one side of an equilateral triangle. In both cases the lines that form the other two sides of the triangle extend through a second pair of mounds (I and J at Watson Brake; E and D at Caney) before intersecting. And in both cases a line emanating from the “baseline” evenly bisects the gap between a second pair of mounds (B and K at Watson Brake; A and C at Caney).35  

All equilateral triangles have internal angles of 60 degrees, but why, asks Norman Davis in a review of Sassman and Heckenberger’s findings, “did Middle Archaic Builders use a 60 degree triangle? Why not a 45 degree , or a 65 or a 75 degree triangle?”36 

The answer to this question, he suggests, has everything to do with the sun: 

It is probably not a coincidence that at Watson Brake the distance along the horizon from where the sun rises (or sets) on the winter solstice to where it rises (or sets) on the summer solstice defines an arc of 59 degrees. … Their triangle was probably derived from this.37

AS AT SERPENT MOUND, AS at Cahokia, as at Newark, as at High Bank, and as at Poverty Point, the primary concern of the designers of Watson Brake seems to have been to manifest, memorialize, and consummate the marriage of heaven and earth at key moments of the year. This notion of sky/ground communion—summarized in the Old World in the Hermetic dictum “as above so below” but part of a universally distributed package of astronomical and geometrical memes—can involve the moon and the earth, specific stars or constellations and the earth, other planets and the earth, the Milky Way and the earth, and the sun and the earth. 

At Watson Brake, it’s the sun and the earth that take center stage, as Norman Davis ably demonstrated in 2012 across 18 pages of the journal Louisiana Archaeology. 38 The principal assertions concerning solstitial and equinoctial alignments that he makes there have stood the test of time and won the support of leading archaeoastronomers. 39 

In brief, Davis includes the twelve recognized mounds, A through L, in his survey but he also takes note of two natural mounds “possibly modified” 40 that in his view were intentionally left near the center of the oval in antiquity when the rest of the plaza was artificially leveled. These he designates Mounds 1 and 2. 

Among his key findings the most immediately striking is that no fewer than five separate alignments running through the site each independently and redundantly target the summer solstice sunset. “Even if the alignments were not to the sun,” Davis writes, “the ability to establish five perfectly parallel, nearly equidistant sight lines across several hundred meters would be remarkable. The sight lines had to have preceded construction. Their pattern suggests a master site plan, with construction to the plan taking years, or perhaps centuries, to complete.” 41 

Impressively, the alignments target the sun not exactly where it rises and sets today but rather precisely where it would have risen and where it would have set in the epoch of 3400 BC—which, at the latitude of Watson Brake, was at azimuth 119 degrees for the winter solstice sunrise and at azimuth 299 degrees for the summer solstice sunset. 42 As the reader will recall, solstice alignments are reciprocal. If you are facing the setting sun on the summer solstice, then 6 months later on the winter solstice the sun will rise in the  exact opposite direction, 180 degrees around the “dial” of the “azimuth clock.” 

The “azimuth” of an object is its distance from true north in degrees counting clockwise. North is nominated as 0 degrees, so azimuth 90 degrees is due east, azimuth 180 degrees is due south, and azimuth 270 degrees is due west. An azimuth of 299 degrees will therefore be 29 degrees north of west. An azimuth of 119 degrees is 29 degrees south of east. 

There are no alignments to the summer solstice sunrise or to the winter solstice sunset at Watson Brake. But the clear alignments to the summer solstice sunset (azimuth 299 degrees) and the winter solstice sunrise (azimuth 119 degrees) identified by Davis are as follows: 

From Mound A to Mound B. 
From Mound J to Mound 2.
From Mound D to Mound L.
From Mound I to the southern edge of Mound D.
From Mound E to the outside edge of the double bulge on the Mound E platform.43 

“The Mound J to Mound 2 sight line,” Davis adds, “continues on and passes through the center of the gap between Mounds C and D. The Mound D to Mound L sight line passes through the center of the gap between Mounds I and J. The sight lines have azimuths of 119 degrees and 299 degrees.”44 

Could Watson Brake’s multiple alignments to the summer solstice sunset and the winter solstice sunrise have come about by chance? It already seems vanishingly unlikely, but what settles the matter is that the site’s concerns turn out to be not only with the solstices but also with the spring and autumn equinoxes—those special times of balance around March 21 and September 21 when night and day are of equal length and the sun rises perfectly due east and sets perfectly due west. Davis has identified four equinoctial alignments at Watson Brake, as follows: 

From Mound A to Mound C.
From Mound 1 to Mound 2.
From Mound E to Mound F. 
From Mound G to Mound H.45 

In addition, several of these equinox sight lines, notably Mounds E–F and mounds G–H, extend to other mounds and features of the earthwork in such a way, Davis notes, that their east to west alignment “had to have preceded construction. This suggests that equinox alignments were … used to engineer this site.”46 

And not only the equinox alignments. 

The length of the Watson Brake earthworks is defined by the alignment to the summer solstice sunset of the two ends of its principal axis, Mound L in the southeast and Mound D in the northwest. Its breadth is defined on one side by the Mound E to Mound E-platform alignment, and on the other by the Mound A to Mound B alignment, both also solstitial.47 

All in all, Davis makes a strong case that the entire design of the site is an artifact of its solstitial and equinoctial alignments. They came first; everything else followed. The question that remains unanswered, however, is … why? Davis sidesteps it, stating that his purpose is only “to demonstrate that solstice and equinox alignments are present at Watson Brake.”48 There’s no doubt he has succeeded in this enterprise, as his findings regarding the site’s solstice alignments have subsequently been confirmed at a higher level  of technical precision in a Lidar survey by archaeoastronomer William Romain. 

Building on the discoveries made by Davis, Romain’s conclusions are striking: 

Watson Brake incorporates sophisticated geometric designs tied to astronomical sightlines in multiple ways. As someone who has worked mostly in the field of Hopewell archaeology, I am still trying to wrap my head around the fact that all this anticipates Adena and Hopewell by thousands of years. Indeed, the significance of these findings is that Watson Brake appears to be the earliest known celestially-aligned mound complex in North America. That’s a big deal.49 

The fact that it’s a big deal only makes the unanswered “why” question more urgent, but Davis admits he’s unable to think of any “practical reason why the site should have been designed and engineered around solar sightlines. In fact it must have added to the difficulty of construction.”50 

The logical conclusion, he suggests, is that “using solar azimuths to design and build Watson Brake may have had more to do with cosmology [beliefs about the origin and nature of the universe] than astronomy [the scientific study of the heavens].”51 

None of the other Middle Archaic sites have yet had the benefit of the sort of thorough archaeoastronomical survey that Davis, and subsequently Romain, have been able to carry out at Watson Break. However, Davis estimates from map analysis, within a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percent, that the Caney Mounds site has “one equinox alignment and two summer and winter solstice alignments. Frenchman’s Bend has one equinox alignment and one winter solstice alignment.”52 

The mystery, although the sites so far investigated “show no evidence for the development of astronomical knowledge over time,”53 is that “the people who directed the construction of Watson Brake … had an advanced knowledge of the solar and probably lunar cycles, and they used this knowledge to design and engineer their sites. Who were these directors, and how did they get others to build the sites one container of earth at a time?”54 


How were these “directors” able to manifest geometrical and astronomical knowledge, and advanced combinations of the two, more than 5,000 years ago when no prior evidence of the existence of such abilities has been found in North America at such an early date? Set aside for a moment the issue of the organizational competence necessary to motivate and manage the workforce. The bigger problem is that the scientific skills and the knowledge required to create the earthworks just seem to appear out of nowhere, with no evolution and no buildup. 

One minute they’re not there. The next, almost magically, they are. And then, at once, the Middle Archaic mound-building phenomenon bursts into full bloom. 

We know it starts earlier, but for convenience let’s take the florescence of Watson Brake around 3400 BC as a benchmark. 

What follows, there and at the other sites, is roughly 700 years of stability, continuity, and—we must assume given the similarities—communications and connections. As noted earlier, these were all different cultures, but they all shared the same mound-building obsession and continued to express it in the same ways. 

Until sometime around 2700 BC. 

That was when, for some unexplained reason, the ancient sites were all abandoned and the whole mound-building enterprise came to an abrupt and complete halt. I’ll let Joe Saunders, the acknowledged expert on the subject, take up the story of the mysterious end of Middle Archaic mound-building: 

New radiometric data indicate a sudden and widespread cessation of mound building in northeast Louisiana. The clustering of the ten youngest dates from seven mounds at four sites is remarkable. The median probability for seven of the ten samples falls between 2884 BC and 2739 BC. Equally remarkable is that the cessation of mound construction may have lasted up to 1,000 years, or until the emergence of the Poverty Point culture. … To date, not one mound site dating to the Late Archaic (2700 BC to 1700 BC) has been identified in the Lower Mississippi Valley.55 

Saunders declines to speculate in any depth about the reasons for this precipitous end to the precocious early mound-building phenomenon in North America. He’s open to the possibility, suggested by some, that climate change might have been involved, but states his own view that “the ‘synchronous’ event may be better understood as a social phenomenon. The abandonment of an ideology or change in ethos can occur simultaneously within a diverse range of environments. Also the absence of environmental change would be consistent with the documented continuity in economy from Early to Late Archaic periods—before, during, and after mound building.”56 

Whatever the reason, the facts are not in doubt. Mound-building, with all its sophisticated geometry and astronomy, stopped dead in its tracks around 2700 BC. For the next thousand years not a single mound was built and not a  single earthwork was raised. There’s not a hint of geometry or of monumental architecture. The only reasonable conclusion is that those skills had been utterly lost. 

But then, as suddenly and mysteriously as the “mound-building movement” had vanished, it appeared again, at around 1700 BC, in the spectacular and sophisticated form of Poverty Point.57 All the old geometrical and astronomical skills were redeployed there—and by practiced hands—as though they’d been in regular use all along. 

Poverty Point thrived for the next 600 or so years, only to be abandoned in its turn at around 1100 BC. Then it seems that mound-building was interrupted again until relatively late in the development of the culture archaeologists call the Adena. The label “Adena” is in fact the name of the country estate in Ohio on which the “typesite” was found.58 We have no idea what that culture called itself. Its origins can be traced back to around 1000 BC.59 However, no early Adena mounds exist and those that have been dated, such as the Adena Mound typesite,60 cluster around 200 BC or, in the case of Serpent Mound, 300 BC,61 but not significantly earlier.62 

It looks very much as if there was another hiatus, perhaps not of 1,000 years—let’s say 800 years—between the end of Poverty Point and the rebirth of the mound-builder movement late in the Adena period. Thereafter it grew again to full force in its Hopewell and later Mississippian manifestations until finally being brought to an end by the European conquest. 

Despite the fact that different cultures were involved at different periods, every resurgence of mound-building was linked to the reiteration and reimagination of the same geometrical and astronomical memes. 

This was not “chance” or “coincidence.” 

Witness, for example, the way that Lower Jackson Mound was used as the base datum from which the entire geometry of Poverty Point was calculated. 

Or, at a more human level, consider the case of the highly polished hematite plummet—a valuable item—that was made at Poverty Point at around 1500 BC but that some pilgrim carefully carried to the by then long abandoned and deserted site of Watson Brake and deliberately buried half a meter deep near the top of Mound E.63 

This kind of behavior—the incorporation of ancient sites into younger ones, pilgrimage, an offering—has the feel of a religion about it. Religious institutions have proved themselves throughout history to be extremely efficient vehicles for the preservation and transmission of memes across periods of thousands of years. 

It’s not unreasonable, therefore, to suppose that some kind of cosmic “sky ground” religion lay behind the alignments to the solstices and the equinoxes at Watson Brake and at the other early sites—a religion sufficiently robust to ensure the continuous successful transmission of a system of geometry, astronomy, and architecture over thousands of years. 

John Clark is in no doubt. “The evidence,” he says, “suggests very old and widely disseminated knowledge about how to build large sites. The building lore persisted remarkably intact for so long that I think we can, and must, assume that it was part of special knowledge tied to ritual practice.”64 

Where did this special knowledge come from before it appeared at Watson Brake? 

How old is it really? 

And why, like the serpent that changes its skin or the phoenix reborn from the ashes, does it possess the extraordinary ability to vanish for millennia and then to reappear, as Clark puts it, “with no apparent distortions, loss of measurement accuracy, or shifts in numeration?”65 

If it was carried in religious ritual among the ancient civilizations of the Mississippi Valley, then perhaps there will be clues to its origins, and its purpose, in what survives of the spiritual ideas of those long-lost people.

the mystery of death
source and footnotes


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