Poverty Point State Historic Site

Date of Submission: 30/01/2008
Criteria: (iii)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
U.S. Department of the Interior
State, Province or Region:
Coordinates: N32 38 13.364 W91 24 41.906
Ref.: 5246
Word File

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Between 1700 BCE and 1100 BCE, an integrated architectural complex consisting of three or four earthen mounds, a series of six vast concentric semi-elliptical earthen ridges (ranging in diameter from 600 to 1200 meters), a large flat plaza defined by the innermost ridge (14 hectares or 35 acres in size), and several borrow areas, was constructed at this site on a bayou (a marshy tributary) not far from the west bank of the Mississippi River.

The ridges are believed to have served as living areas.  Three mounds, one of which is the second largest earthen structure in North America, are outside the ridged enclosure; two are inside it.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The vast earthen architecture of this site was constructed by a foraging society of hunter- gatherers, not a settled agricultural people, which makes it all the more remarkable a site. It is still not understood how and why such a society could so totally transform this landscape.  It may well be the largest hunter-gatherer settlement that has ever existed.  Not only was it the largest settlement of its time in North America, but its design was absolutely unique and its construction required an unprecedented amount (over 750,000 cubic meters) of earth-moving.  Poverty Point was also the center of a major exchange network with goods brought in from as far as 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) distant.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

There are no reconstructions at the site and only a small portion has been excavated.  Agricultural use in the 19th and 20th centuries caused some deflation of the southern sectors of the concentric earthen ridges and more severe damage to a small part of one of the ridges. Other damage includes an historic road that bisected one of the mounds.

Comparison with other similar properties

It seems clear that Poverty Point was the largest center of its type in the lower Mississippi region and had the largest and most elaborate earthworks.  Its art, expressed in clay figurines, stone jewelry, and the lapidary industry, was unsurpassed in North America during its early time period.

Poverty Point has been compared to the slightly younger Olmec and Chavin Cultures of coastal Mesoamerica and Peru, respectively.  But those societies, while comparable in their cultural elaborations-monumental architecture, art, and lapidary technology -- both represent agriculturally based subsistence adaptations.