Heart of Louisiana: Poverty Point

Published: Jun. 23, 2014 at 9:58 AM CDT
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The site of an ancient civilization in Louisiana may be on the verge of becoming one of UNESCO's World Heritage sites.  We'll know next month if the mounds at Poverty Point get that special designation.  In tonight's  Heart of Louisiana, FOX 8's Dave McNamara takes us to West Carroll Parish to see what makes the complex of 3,000-year-old mounds so special.

WEST CARROLL PARISH, LA (WVUE) - Its height competes with the treetops in this flat Northeast Louisiana farmland. The great mound at Poverty Point was the centerpiece of a large prehistoric community that was likely Louisiana's first major city.

"It's incredible," said archeologist Diana Greenlee, who is stationed at the site. "It's really a significant site for all humanity."

"it's this monumental earthworks site that was built about 3,400 years ago by people who were hunters and gatherers," Greenlee continued. "It's got this complex of mounds and ridges that is just not seen anywhere else."

It wasn't until the early 1950s that archeologists realized the significance of the site. Aerial photographs revealed something that wasn't noticeable on the ground. In front of the large mound were six semi-circular ridges measuring three-quarters of a mile across.  After a rain, water puddles in the low areas between the man-made ridges that held the dwellings.

"We know that that's where they lived because that's where we find most of the artifacts, that's where we find most of the hearths and the earth ovens that they used for cooking," Greenlee said.

The mounds were built one basketful of dirt at a time. The largest mound, 72 feet tall, contains eight million cubic feet of dirt.

"That's like 15-and-a-half million 50-pound basket loads of dirt. That's a lot of dirt," Greenlee said.

Poverty Point was part of a massive trade network. These ancient people imported 78 tons of stone, brought in from other parts of America, up to 1,000 miles away. And they left behind hundreds of thousands of artifacts - the points of arrows and spears, pottery, tools and figurines.

"We do get some sort of sense of hairstyle," Greenlee said. "They definitely have different physical characteristics. Some of them were very slender, some of them are very plump."

The United States has nominated Poverty Point to become a UNESCO's World Heritage Site, a listing that includes the world's greatest natural wonders and cultural sites. If it's selected, it would be listed alongside the Great Wall of China, the Great Pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge as a place of outstanding world importance.

A decision will come from the UN committee next month.

"There is this whole world of different cultures who did different things, and I think understanding that, I think, is important," Greenlee said.

The purpose of the mounds - and why the site was abandoned - are still mysteries. But Poverty Point provides a fascinating window into our ancient past, with the construction of a great city that thrived here for 600 years.

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