Did you know that tucked into the northeast corner of Louisiana are the remnants of an ancient civilization at least 3,400 years old? Located in rural Richland Parish, 55 miles from Monroe, Poverty Point World Heritage Site was once a major prehistoric trading center home to thousands of people. Although many archaeologists consider it to be North America’s first city, few Louisianans know about this history marvel located in their own state.
Every year I teach third grade social studies students about this mysterious place, but until recently, never had the chance to visit. The site is about 4hours from New Orleans– a little too far for a day trip, certainly too distant for a field trip. I finally had the chance to see Poverty Point with my own eyes this summer, together with my husband and two children, ages 7 and 11. I highly recommend taking your family to visit this socially distant destination, particularly if your kids are school-age or older.
About the Site
Poverty Point features a large collection of earthen mounds (“earthworks”) arranged in a geometric design stretching several miles wide. Archaeologists believe Poverty Point was once a ceremonial center as well as a trading hub, inhabited by hunter-gatherers who constructed the large earthworks found here by hand. The site also features c-shaped ridges (where ancient people most likely lived), a large plaza, and a museum where visitors can watch a short film about the history of the site and view many of the artifacts that have been found here (masks required).
What does “Poverty Point” mean?
Poverty Point is the name of an unsuccessful cotton plantation that was located here in the 1800s. This name has nothing to do with the culture or history of the hunter-gatherers who lived in the ancient city thousands of years ago. Little is known about who these original inhabitants were, what they called themselves, and what they believed in because they left behind no written records. I strongly believe that this site should be renamed.
Poverty Point’s large collection of earthen mounds are widely regarded as an engineering wonder. Mound A, known as the Bird Mound for its distinctive shape of a bird in flight, is the second-largest mound in North America. This mound stands 72 feet tall, 710 feet long, and 660 feet wide. Thousands of years ago, before the effects of erosion, this mound would’ve stood as high as 100 feet, and taken as much as 15.5 million basket-loads of dirt to construct. Archaeological studies of the soil suggest that this mound was built quickly, in as few as 1-3 months, which indicates that a tremendous amount of hard work, organization, and dedication was involved. Mounds were most likely used for ceremonial worship, while the c-shaped ridges (located in front of the mounds) are where ancient remains of homes (and most of the site’s artifacts) have been found.
Ascending the wooden steps to the summit of the Bird Mound is one of the most dramatic experiences at Poverty Point. The view at the top allows you to experience the enormity of the site and also appreciate its deliberate geometry. Mound A is in a direct North-South line with smaller mounds B and E. The other mounds (D, C, and F) form rectangular border around the six c-shaped ridges (arranged in six groups). Bayou Macon, located in front of the ridges and behind the museum, forms another natural border. Some archaeologists believe hunter-gatherers found security in the balance of symmetry. Today, the site’s rolling hills and endless green space now recall a golf course (an observation shared by my daughter), so it does require some imagination to envision a bustling city once home to thousands of intrepid natives.
A wide variety of artifacts have been recovered at Poverty Point, and excavations are still taking place on a regular basis. Spear points, plummets (fishing weights), beads and pendants featuring images of owls and other animals, have all been found here. Archaeologists believe most of these artifacts were constructed with stones gathered through trade with other ancient groups, as the Poverty Point site doesn’t contain any rocks. One exception to this are the Poverty Point Objects (PPOs), cooking balls constructed from the fine soil found at the site. Hunter-gatherers would have used this prehistoric charcoal to cook food in earthen ovens.
My favorite artifacts are the figurines. Most were constructed in the shape of women’s bodies, many of them with swollen bellies to suggest pregnancy. While many are missing heads and limbs, they may have been used to promote fertility or possibly as children’s toys.
Poverty Point Reservoir State Park
A visit to Poverty Point could be as short as an hour, or easily stretch into a whole-day affair if you plan to hit up the hiking trails around the site. My family spent a few hours at the site, which allowed us to linger in the museum, stretch our legs around the Bird Mound, and take a driving tour twice.
Driving to and from New Orleans in one day is certainly possible, but would’ve felt very rushed. We decided to make a weekend out of our trip, and stayed 15 miles away at Poverty PointReservoir State Park, in Delhi, Louisiana. Poverty Point Reservoir features waterfront cabins, lodges, as well as campsites. There are ample fishing opportunities and nature hikes for exploring. We stayed in a cabin for two-nights and were treated to gorgeous sunsets and a peaceful escape from excessive screen-time at home.
For more information, visit their website HERE!
Why You Should Go
Visitors of all ages will be intrigued by the mystery of the history surrounding the Poverty Point World Heritage Site. Children will enjoy looking for the bird shape at Mound A and evidence of animals in the ancient jewelry. Providing a context for the site helps young learners understand the site’s importance more deeply. For example, during our visit, I told my 7-year-old daughter that Poverty Point was prehistoric. It’s not nearly as old as dinosaurs, but almost as old as Ancient Egypt, and old enough to have existed before written language. My 11 year-old son, who studied Poverty Point in school, as well as other indigenous Pre-Columbian civilizations such as the Maya and Aztec, was able to provide his own context with little guidance (archaeologists believe the Mayan empire took place around the same time period, while the Aztec empire came much later).
The Museum offers a Junior Ranger Activity Booklet (tailored for different ages), that includes Artifact Bingo, journaling activities, and an archaeology maze. When finished, junior rangers can get a certificate signed and receive a Poverty Point Junior Ranger Badge. This badge was my daughter’s favorite souvenir; it still stands proudly on her dresser. Whether or not you take the steps to become a Junior Ranger, a visit to Poverty Point World Heritage Site will definitely award you with a new perspective on Louisiana history and the innovative people who lived here thousands of years ago.