Native Americans built Poverty Point in less than 90 days, research confirms

Academics are constantly underestimating the complexity and sophistication of all ancient civilizations but perhaps more so with ancient Native American civilizations. The standard story goes that only people that practiced agriculture could develop the necessary surpluses to establish complex societies and civilization. It seems every time archaeologists put a spade into the earth what comes out is not just dirt but evidence that their theories are simply too simplistic. Every shovel full of dirt conspires to push back the date of the earliest civilizations and the complexity of the “primitive” people who built them. Such is the case with the spectacular site of Poverty Point in Louisiana. This was one of the earliest complex civilizations in the Americas dating to around 1700 BC. The latest research has stunned researchers at the speed with which its enormous earthen pyramid was constructed by a supposedly “simple” and “archaic” hunter-gatherer society. Read the full story below to learn more:

Nominated early this year for recognition on the UNESCO World Heritage List, which includes such famous cultural sites as the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu and Stonehenge, the earthen works at Poverty Point, La., have been described as one of the world’s greatest feats of construction by an archaic civilization of hunters and gatherers.

Now, new research in the current issue of the journal Geoarchaeology, offers compelling evidence that one of the massive earthen mounds at Poverty Point was constructed in less than 90 days, and perhaps as quickly as 30 days — an incredible accomplishment for what was thought to be a loosely organized society consisting of small, widely scattered bands of foragers.

“What’s extraordinary about these findings is that it provides some of the first evidence that early American hunter-gatherers were not as simple as we’ve tended to imagine,” says study co-author T.R. Kidder, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Our findings go against what has long been considered the academic consensus on hunter-gatherer societies — that they lack the political organization necessary to bring together so many people to complete a labor-intensive project in such a short period.”

Co-authored by Anthony Ortmann, PhD, assistant professor of geosciences at Murray State University in Kentucky, the study offers a detailed analysis of how the massive mound was constructed some 3,200 years ago along a Mississippi River bayou in northeastern Louisiana.

Based on more than a decade of excavations, core samplings and sophisticated sedimentary analysis, the study’s key assertion is that Mound A at Poverty Point had to have been built in a very short period because an exhaustive examination reveals no signs of rainfall or erosion during its construction.

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Study co-authors Anthony Ortmann (standing) and T.R. Kidder (center) evaluate the Mound A excavations at Poverty Point. Katherine Adelsberger (seated left), then a Washington University graduate student (now professor at Knox College), and Rachel Bielitz, then a Washington University undergraduate, look on.

“We’re talking about an area of northern Louisiana that now tends to receive a great deal of rainfall,” Kidder says. “Even in a very dry year, it would seem very unlikely that this location could go more than 90 days without experiencing some significant level of rainfall. Yet, the soil in these mounds shows no sign of erosion taking place during the construction period. There is no evidence from the region of an epic drought at this time, either.”

Louisiana_-_Poverty_Point300Part of a much larger complex of earthen works at Poverty Point, Mound A is believed to be the final and crowning addition to the sprawling 700-acre site, which includes five smaller mounds and a series of six concentric C-shaped embankments that rise in parallel formation surrounding a small flat plaza along the river. At the time of construction, Poverty Point was the largest earthworks in North America.

Built on the western edge of the complex, Mound A covers about 538,000 square feet [roughly 50,000 square meters] at its base and rises 72 feet above the river. Its construction required an estimated 238,500 cubic meters — about eight million bushel baskets —of soil to be brought in from various locations near the site. Kidder figures it would take a modern, 10-wheel dump truck about 31,217 loads to move that much dirt today.

“The Poverty Point mounds were built by people who had no access to domesticated draft animals, no wheelbarrows, no sophisticated tools for moving earth,” Kidder explains. “It’s likely that these mounds were built using a simple ‘bucket brigade’ system, with thousands of people passing soil along from one to another using some form of crude container, such as a woven basket, a hide sack or a wooden platter.”

Kidder hole

Kidder analyzes the varied colors and layers of the soils of Mound A, which are a result of the building process. Indians carried basket-loads of dirt weighing roughly 55 pounds and piled them up carefully to form the mound.

To complete such a task within 90 days, the study estimates it would require the full attention of some 3,000 laborers. Assuming that each worker may have been accompanied by at least two other family members, say a wife and a child, the community gathered for the build must have included as many as 9,000 people, the study suggests.

“Given that a band of 25-30 people is considered quite large for most hunter-gatherer communities, it’s truly amazing that this ancient society could bring together a group of nearly 10,000 people, find some way to feed them and get this mound built in a matter of months,” Kidder says.

Soil testing indicates that the mound is located on top of land that was once low-lying swamp or marsh land — evidence of ancient tree roots and swamp life still exists in undisturbed soils at the base of the mound. Tests confirm that the site was first cleared for construction by burning and quickly covered with a layer of fine silt soil. A mix of other heavier soils then were brought in and dumped in small adjacent piles, gradually building the mound layer upon layer.

As Kidder notes, previous theories about the construction of most of the world’s ancient earthen mounds have suggested that they were laid down slowly over a period of hundreds of years involving small contributions of material from many different people spanning generations of a society. While this may be the case for other earthen structures at Poverty Point, the evidence from Mound A offers a sharp departure from this accretional theory.

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A group of school students visits the Washington University excavations of Mound A at Poverty Point. While doing work at the site, researchers collaborate closely with the Louisiana Office of State Parks to conduct educational and outreach efforts that enhance understanding of the rich history and archaeology of America’s native inhabitants.

Kidder’s home base in St. Louis is just across the Mississippi River from one of America’s best known ancient earthen structures, the Monk Mound at Cahokia, Ill. He notes that the Monk Mound was built many centuries later than the mounds at Poverty Point by a civilization that was much more reliant on agriculture, a far cry from the hunter-gatherer group that built Poverty Point. Even so, Mound A at Poverty Point is much larger than almost any other mound found in North America; only Monk’s Mound at Cahokia is larger.

“We’ve come to realize that the social fabric of these societies must have been much stronger and more complex that we might previously have given them credit. These results contradict the popular notion that pre-agricultural people were socially, politically, and economically simple and unable to organize themselves into large groups that could build elaborate architecture or engage in so-called complex social behavior,” Kidder says. “The prevailing model of hunter-gatherers living a life ‘nasty, brutish and short’ is contradicted and our work indicates these people were practicing a sophisticated ritual/religious life that involved building these monumental mounds.”

Courtesy WUSTL.edu. Original story appeared here: http://news.wustl.edu/news/Pages/24857.aspx

Sapelo Shell Rings (2170 BC)

Above: Watch an excerpt from the Lost Worlds: Georgia DVD.   Buy today or make a donation and help support LostWorlds.org. All sales help fund future videos and exhibits.

The oldest Native American civilization in the state of Georgia can be found along the Atlantic coast on Sapelo Island. Known as the Sapelo Island Shell Ring Complex, this site consists of three doughnut-shaped Indian mounds built from successive layers of different types of shells including oysters, conch, clams, and mussels. The rings rise approximately 20 feet above the tidal marsh and the largest of the three has a diameter of 255 feet. The site has been radiocarbon dated at 2170 B.C. making it older than many of Egypt’s pyramids! (Similar sites have been discovered in Florida such as the Horr’s Island Mounds and Guana River Shell Rings which are even older.)

This 3D animation shows the shell rings constructed all-at-once as intentional monuments.

There are two theories regarding the formation of the Sapelo Shell Rings.  One theory holds that they were built purposefully, in a short burst of building activity, as intentional monuments and ceremonial centers. The other theory holds that they were unintentional monuments built up over many years as NativeAmericans discarded their trash. This theory holds that the circular shape of the shell rings was the result of Native Americans living in circular villages and discarding their trash behind their homes which resulted in a circular trash ring that gradually built up over time. (A third hybrid possibility, gradual but intentional, will be discussed later wherein the residents purposefully discarded their trash behind their homes knowing that it would slowly accumulate into a protective, surrounding wall.)

How the Timucua hunted alligators. Buy this artwork framed or as a poster.

The latest research seems to support the gradual accumulation theory.  The Sapelo Shell Rings are filled with not only various types of shells but also the bones of fish such as catfish and mullet, mammals such as deer and raccoon, and reptiles such as alligator. In other words, the shell rings are built from the refuse of daily living and preliminary research shows that this refuse accumulated over a long period of time as opposed to being deposited in a single building event as one would expect if the rings were intentional monuments.

This 3D animation shows how the village would have originally looked before the shell rings had completely formed.

Archaeologist Victor Thompson researched and excavated this site over several years. His research showed that one of the shell rings first began as several pits spaced equally apart filled with shell and other refuse. Over time these trash pits turned into shell heaps and later the areas between these shell heaps were also utilized for dumping shells and other refuse. Thus the circular form of the ring took shape as the residents, over a long period of time, continued dumping their refuse between and on top of the original shell heaps. This process resulted in a less than perfect circle and also gave the ring a decidedly “lumpy” appearance. If this had been built as an intentional monument one would expect the circle to be more symmetrical and the height to be more uniform but they’re not which is exactly what you would expect to see if the rings accumulated over a long period of time.

Party Time at Sapelo

What does seem to be intentional is the central plaza within the shell rings. (View QTVR) Thus, even though the shell rings themselves may  be trash piles, their central plazas were indeed purposefully constructed as a location for ceremonies, feasts, dances, games and other activities of village life. In fact, Thompson noted that the interior of the shell ring was lower than the ground level outside the shell ring. He proposed this could have resulted from the villagers repeatedly cleaning the central plaza area by sweeping and dumping this refuse onto the shell ring. This would have added to the height of the ring while simultaneously lowering the ground level within the ring.

What’s For Dinner?

Timucua men cooking a variety of food items including fish, snakes, and alligator.

By analyzing the bones and shells discarded in the shell ring, Thompson was able to discover not only what the people living at Sapelo ate but also when they ate it. The evidence showed that the villagers ate oysters primarily during the winter months. They ate clams throughout the year but more so in the warmer months. As to be expected, they also ate a lot of fish with two varieties of sea catfish being preferred based on the quantity of remains found. Fish in the drum family were the second most eaten fish including such varieties as  kingfish, silver perch, sea trout, Atlantic croaker and star drum. Interestingly, only one variety of freshwater fish was eaten: the sunfish. The remains of crabs, primarily blue crabs but also Florida stone crabs, were the second most abundant food source discovered in the shell trash heaps.

The Timucua dressed up as deer in order to get close to their prey. Buy this artwork as a poster or get it framed.

These villagers also ate white-tailed deer, opossum, raccoon, turkey, bottle-nosed dolphin, gray squirrel, Atlantic sea turtle and fresh water turtles, little green heron and domesticated dog. Minus the dolphins, dogs, turtles and herons much of the diet of these villagers 4,000 years ago is remarkably similar to those living in the area today. (Continues….)

Work Continues on Watson Brake Site

Group hopes to make site declared a state park
BY ZACK SOUTHWELL • ZSOUTHWELL@MONROE.GANNETT.COM • DECEMBER 17, 2010

watson brake

Watson Brake, an area of mounds south of Monroe, was discovered by local archaeologist Reca Jones more than 30 years ago. Since then, she has worked tirelessly to have the area declared a state park to preserve its treasures.

Similar to Poverty Point in West Carroll Parish and reported to be older than the pyramids in Egypt, the area is believed to contain a great wealth of knowledge about the earliest settlers of northeastern Louisiana.

At the monthly meeting of the Northeast Chapter of the Archaeology Society on Thursday, Jessica Crawford, Southeast regional director of the Archaeology Conservancy, spoke to the group about what she does.

“It’s hard work, getting a site named as a state park and preserved,” Crawford said.

The Gentry family, which has owned the land the brake is located on since the 1950s, has allowed Jones and other researchers on sections of the property that the state has been unable to purchase.

While the conservancy owns half the property, it has been unsuccessful in acquiring the rest of it.

“For preservation purposes, we would like to purchase the entire site,” Crawford said. “Ideally, we’d like to see it made into a state park.” (Continues)

Read the entire article at:http://www.thenewsstar.com/article/20101217/NEWS01/12170318/Work-continues-on-Watson-Brake

A complex people lived here 7,000 years ago

DAVID TEWES
Sunday, April 2, 2006

A study of ancient human remains and artifacts found in the Guadalupe
River floodplain of south Victoria County shows that a relatively
advanced people who had contacts with others living hundreds of miles
away populated the area.
“We did not know this culture existed. Period,” said Bob Ricklis, the
lead archaeologist studying the items. “We didn’t know anything about
it.”
He said not only did it exist, but it apparently did well. He said the
people had lifespans comparable to modern-day people and had contacts
with others as far away as what later became the Southeast and Midwest
United States.
“They are more advanced than we would have expected,” Ricklis said.
Ricklis is director of the Corpus Christi office of Coastal Environments
Inc., which conducted the archaeological dig to unearth and study the
human remains and artifacts discovered at the Buckeye Knoll site near
the Invista plant.
The excavation was done for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part the
project to widen and deepen the Victoria Barge Canal. While the canal
improvements affected only a small portion of the site that contained no
human remains, a corps official has said it’s standard procedure to
examine the entire site.
Daniel Castro Romero Jr., general council chairman for the Lipan Apache
Band of Texas Inc., said the find is an important one. He said he
believes Native Americans originated here and this cemetery confirms
that.
“We’re rewriting history because of what’s been found out here,” he
said. “This is of great importance.”
He said not only does it rewrite the history of the region, but of the
nation.
The excavation produced a large collection of artifacts dating back from
500 to 10,000 years, Ricklis said. A prehistoric cemetery thought to
date back at least 7,000 years was also discovered.
“It’s one of only three of that magnitude in North America,” Ricklis
said. He noted that the other known cemeteries older than 5,000 years
are Carrier Mills in Southern Illinois and Windover on the east coast of
Florida. He also said archaeologists didn’t even suspect that people in
Texas had major cemeteries 7,000 years ago.
“It’s a sizeable cemetery,” Ricklis said. “We excavated about 80
burials, but there are a lot more than that in the site.”
He estimated there could be as many as 200 burials there that date back
7,000 years. Based on radiocarbon dating, he said, the oldest of the
human remains tested dates back 8,500 years.
Ricklis said researchers are confident the site was occupied as far back
as 10,000 years ago because of flint points found there that are known
to be from that period. “Specifically, we found dart points of the
Golondrina, St. Mary’s Hall and Wilson types, all known to date to
before 9,000 years ago.”
Ricklis said he has no idea where the predecessors of these Native
Americans originated, but there is nothing to indicate a European
connection. He said they could be part of an early population that may
have come from northeast Asia.
But he added some in the field question that and believe there may have
been immigrants from Europe or the Pacific region who contributed to
early American populations.
“Probably the most interesting thing we have regarding the cemetery is a
lot of artifacts found with the burials and placed in the graves as
offerings,” Ricklis said.
He said those artifacts are evidence of links to the Mississippi River
Valley, the Southeast United States and possibly even Mexico.
Examples include bannerstones, flint projectile points, beads, shell
pendants, and bone and antler tools for working flint. A bannerstone is
a piece of stone that was worked by pecking and grinding into an oblong
shape. It was typically 4 to 6 inches long, carefully crafted and
usually smoothed, sometimes to a polish.
“The bannerstones are not typical of Texas,” Ricklis said. “The ones we
have are of a certain type much more common in the Mississippi Valley
and the Midwest.”
Also found were plummets, or teardrop-shaped stones, that have been
drilled and are more typical of the Southeast for this time period.
Ricklis said he still doesn’t have the final report on the physical
anthropology showing the sex and age of the people. But the study showed
there were several individuals who lived to be 70 years old and still
had their teeth, indicating they led relatively healthy lives.
“We do see that these people are quite healthy and some of the diseases
we see in later populations of Native Americans were not present,”
Ricklis said.
He said he’s not sure what the typical lifespan would have been for
these people. But he said he would expect hunter-gatherers to have had a
lifespan of 45 to 50 years.
“There is nothing indicating death from other than natural causes,”
Ricklis said. “Old age is just one of the natural causes. There are many
children and young- to middle-aged adults in the cemetery, as well.”
It appears they had a diet that was a mix of plants and animals they got
from the local river floodplain and the prairie environment. There were
also indications they brought food from the coast.
Their meals from the floodplain and prairie consisted of things like
deer, river fish, local plants and possibly buffalo. The coastal meals
included saltwater fish and oysters.

? David Tewes is a reporter for the Advocate. Contact him at
361-580-6515 or dtewes@vicad.com, or comment on this story at
www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.

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Virtual First Ohioans

The Ohio Historical Society has a new online exhibit entitled Virtual First Ohioans which includes videos and photos of artifacts found at many of Ohio’s most important archaeological sites. The site covers every archaeological period in Ohio from the Archaic to the Woodland to the Mississippian. The exhibit includes extensive information on the most important cultures to have lived in Ohio including the Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian cultures.

Visit the Virtual First Ohioans exhibit.

Artifact may be ancient ax blade

ESCANABA (AP) — Ryan Bernard of Escanaba has found a lot of interesting things with his metal detector: an 1837 Quebec bank token, an 1861 penny, a 1916 buffalo nickel.

When he found a hunk of metal buried 2 feet beneath his Lakeshore Drive backyard last summer, he almost threw it in the trash.

Upon further examination, it may be an artifact from a prehistoric culture.

“I was about to throw it in the garbage, and I held it up and I saw the honed edge on it,” he said.

Ray Reser, director of the Central Wisconsin Archaeology Center at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, described the object as a copper “celt,” a type of ax blade with no perforations or grooves. He said the celt was probably a functioning tool.

The piece probably dates from 3,000 to 5,000 years ago.

“We were just out there looking for weed pennies and what not,” Bernard said. “To end up digging something like that up is really shocking.”

When his detector went off, he wasn’t expecting much.

“A lot of times when you get a signal that good and it’s buried that deep, it’s just a big chunk of iron,” he said.

He said he dug down, found nothing, got frustrated and recovered the hole. When his father gave him some ribbing for not finding anything, he tried again, a little deeper, and there it was.

Similar findings have been made throughout the Upper Midwest, most notably in Oconto, Wis., where a site unearthed in 1952 now known as Copper Culture State Park yielded several burial plots and artifacts.

Thomas Pleger, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County, wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Old Copper Complex. He described these prehistoric societies as seasonally-mobile people whose temporary homes were based on abundance of particular resources. Hunting, fishing and trade were the basis of their lives.

The Old Copper Complex is one of the oldest metal-working societies in the world.

Read the entire article here: http://www.record-eagle.com/statenews/local_story_100095019.html