Poverty Point National Monument, located in the northeast corner of Louisiana (about 150 kilometers west of Jackson, Mississippi), is rich in historic and cultural significance. The proof lies in its recent designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of only 22 such sites in the United States. According to UNESCO criteria, Poverty Point bears “unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared.”
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In order to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Poverty Point had to be nominated, prove that it is of national significance and that there is enough protection in place to ensure long-term preservation.
The bid proved a bit of a challenge, according to Diana Greenlee, who is the Poverty Point station archaeologist and an adjunct professor of archaeology at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. “Most World Heritage Sites are quite photogenic,” she said. “We had to figure out how to best showcase it.” After all, she added, “Poverty Point is really cool, but, on the surface, it’s piles of dirt.”
But those piles of dirt have great archaeological significance. Dating back to the time of Egyptian King Tutankhamun, Poverty Point’s history is largely a mystery. Archaeologists know that indigenous groups of hunter-gatherers lived in this corner of Louisiana between 1700 and 1100 B.C. Those groups built a spectacular landscape featuring an intricate complex of concentric C-shaped earthen ridges and dirt mounds, including one rising 22 meters. Little is known about why these earthworks were created, but their scale is of a magnitude before unseen in history. “The fact that these enormous mounds not only seemed to appear out of nowhere, plus the complexity of the design, makes them uniquely significant,” Greenlee noted.
There are a few working theories about the purpose of the earthworks at Poverty Point. They may have been used to mark the location as an important place or to bring people together to reinforce social bonds. According to Greenlee, “We can’t know what the people were thinking when they built the earthworks. But the mounds did serve as a signal about power and wealth.” She suggested that the mounds were meant to inform neighboring civilizations “that it might be smarter to cooperate than to compete.”
As for the mystery behind the monument’s odd name, that one’s easier to figure out. Poverty Point was named after a 19th-century plantation that once occupied part of the Lower Mississippi Valley near the earth mounds.
There are several ways to experience Poverty Point. You can tour the site on a one-hour guided tram tour, a self-guided driving route or by foot. A hike around the mounds takes about two hours. Maps and brochures can be obtained at the visitors’ center, which also houses a museum and a theater where an introductory film is shown.
Poverty Point also hosts regularly scheduled demonstrations and hands-on programs that include flint knapping (chipping stone tools), spear-throwing competitions using a model of an ancient throwing tool called an atlatl, and a variety of different craft workshops. Additionally, ranger-led night hikes provide visitors with a unique opportunity to experience the site under the stars.