The Poverty Point Culture flourished from approximately 2000 B.C. to 600 B.C. The culture is named for the famous Poverty Point Site where the largest earthworks of the period were built. During this time, Poverty Point people lived in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas, and they usually settled near major rivers, junctions of lakes and rivers, or in coastal marshes. These locations supported a wide variety of plants and animals that could be used for food.
Like Meso-Indians, some Poverty Point Indians lived in small dispersed groups, but others established regional centers where large populations lived throughout the year. Oval or horseshoe-shaped structures of earth or shell were usually built at these centers. The reason for the construction is unknown, but it is likely that the Poverty Point leaders lived at such sites and that the sites functioned as ceremonial, political, and trading centers.
The Poverty Point Site in northeastern Louisiana was the largest regional center. When it was built, it lay between the Mississippi and the Arkansas rivers. Using these rivers, as well as land routes, Poverty Point Indians traded with other Indians as far away as Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Florida.
The Poverty Point Site is near Epps, Louisiana, in the northeastern corner of the state and is now a State Commemorative Area open to the public. The site covers more than a square mile, and when the ridges and mounds were built, they were the largest earthworks in the Western Hemisphere. Although the exact function of the ridges is as yet unknown, it is speculated that the aisles may have been used in astronomical observations because two of them line up with the summer and winter solstice sunsets.
At the Poverty Point Site, the Indians built earthen ridges that form six semicircles, one inside the other. The ridges are interrupted by four aisles that radiate out from the inner area. The outer ridge of these earthworks measures nearly three-quarters of a mile across. Immediately to the west is an earthen mound 70 feet high, and just north of it is another mound, 21 feet high.
The ridges and mounds were built by hand. Workers loosened dirt with shells or stones used like hoes, then filled baskets and animal hides with soil and carried them to the construction area. Approximately 30 million 50-pound loads were used to build the earthen ridges and the two large mounds at Poverty Point. The construction may have taken many generations to complete.
Poverty Point Indians probably had a ranked society, perhaps with a chief to administer earthwork construction and long-distance trade. The leadership also may have helped organize food collecting and hunting activities.
People living at the regional center relied on hunting, fishing, and plant collecting to supply their food, just as Meso-Indians had. They gathered pecans, acorns, hickory nuts, persimmons, seeds of wild grasses, and other wild plant foods. Animals they ate included deer, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, muskrats, ducks, geese, turkeys, turtles, catfish, gar, bowfin, and bass.
Poverty Point Indians continued to use the tools that Meso-Indians had used for hunting, collecting, and food preparation. They were likely, however, to get some of the stone for these tools through long-distance trade. Neo-Indians also added new tools to the Meso-Indian ones.
Poverty Point Artifacts
They made oval-shaped stone plummets that were used as weights on bolas or nets. A bola could be flung so that it wrapped around the feet of wild game. Weighted nets could have trapped both fish and small game. Magnetite and hematite from Missouri and northern Arkansas were used by Louisiana Indians to make these plummets.
The Poverty Point Indians cooked their food in a new way. They made clay cooking balls that probably were used like charcoal briquettes for roasting and baking. They rolled clay in their hands, then squeezed or shaped it into one of many forms. These balls were dried and heated in a fire until hot, then up to 200 were placed in a roasting pit. The different shapes may simply indicate the maker's design preference or may have controlled temperature and cooking time.
Another change in food preparation was the introduction of stone, and later, pottery vessels. Stone cooking or storage bowls were made from steatite (soapstone) or less commonly from sandstone. Later in the period, the first Louisiana pottery vessels were made, and these probably were modeled after the earlier stone bowls.
In addition to these practical goods, Indians of this period made many ornamental objects, including stone and clay figurines, beads, and pendants. The figurines measured about 2.5 inches tall and represented seated females, but usually the heads were removed. This characteristic may indicate that the clay figurines were used in some kind of ceremony. Beads were made from copper, clay, and exotic stones. Pendants, also made of clay and stone, were made in the shape of birds, insects, miniature tools, and geometrical shapes.
To make pendants and beads, the Indians cut and drilled stones with small stone tools usually less than an inch in length. These tools, called microtools, were also used for cutting, scraping, sawing, and engraving bone, antler, and wood.
Some archaeologists think that distinctive traits of the Poverty Point Culture were shared by people living in Mexico and Central America at that time and even earlier. These traits included earthwork construction, planned villages, clay figurines, stone beads and pendants, and microtools. These southern Indians almost certainly influenced the development of certain aspects of Poverty Point Culture, either by direct contact or by descriptions shared by travelers.
The Poverty Point Culture that flourished for over 1,000 years had virtually disappeared by 600 B.C. There is no evidence of warfare or conflict with another group, so perhaps internal political or religious changes caused the decline. In any event, people gradually abandoned the regional centers and returned to living in small scattered settlements. Never again in Louisiana did the Indian people build such massive earthworks or trade over such an extensive area.
The simplified lifestyle that developed at the end of the Poverty Point Period continued throughout the next cultural period. During the time of the Tchefuncte (pronounced Che-funk'tuh) Culture, from 600 B.C. until A.D. 200, people lived in small scattered settlements. Long-distance trade was much less important, yet people in Louisiana were in contact with people in western Mississippi, coastal Alabama, eastern Texas, Arkansas, and southeastern Missouri.
In Louisiana, most Tchefuncte people appear to have lived in coastal areas and in lowlands near slow-moving streams. In these areas, they camped on natural levees, terraces, salt domes, cheniers, and ridges that provided dry ground in the wet environment. Here they built their houses, probably temporary circular shelters having a frame of light poles covered with palmetto, thatch, or grass mixed with mud.
The Tchefuncte Site, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, was so named because it was situated inside Tchefuncte State Park (renamed Fountainbleau State Park). The site had two shell middens, one that measured 100 feet by 250 feet and another 100 feet by 150 feet. Both were excavated, and archaeologists found 50,000 pieces of pottery, as well as artifacts made from bone, shell, and stone. Forty-three human burials were recovered, none of which had objects buried with them.
Tchefuncte peoples continued to depend on wild game and collected plant foods. In the coastal areas, they ate tens of thousands of brackish-water clams and oysters, leaving behind piles of shells called shell middens. Because of the number of shells, archaeologists once thought clams provided the major protein source for Tchefuncte people. Clam meat, however, is actually low in protein and other nutrients and calories. Clams were probably eaten because they were always available, but they were not an important source of nourishment. Surprisingly, Tchefuncte people apparently did not eat crabs or crawfish, which also were plentiful.
Tchefuncte Indians obtained most of their protein from deer, raccoons, alligators, and fish, but many other animals, especially small animals and migratory birds, also were eaten. The Indians used spears and atlatls to kill large game like deer and bear. For smaller mammals and birds, they preferred traps, nets, and bolas. They probably used several techniques for fishing including netting, spearing, and fishing with hook and line. Like the Meso-Indians before them, they gathered plant foods, such as grapes, plums, persimmons, acorns, and hickory nuts. They also may have grown squash and gourds in small gardens.
A Tchefuncte Indian campsite
Tchefuncte people were the first Indians in Louisiana to make large amounts of pottery. They rolled coils of clay into shape and then smoothed them to form a container. Many shapes of pots were made, but characteristically they had "footed" bases. Often these Indians decorated the vessels by pressing fingernails, twigs, or tools into the surface or by rocking a small tool across the wet clay. After decorating the pots, they fired them by slow baking.
Later Indians almost always kneaded the clay thoroughly and mixed it with a small amount of another substance, called temper. These two steps strengthened the clay and helped prevent it from shrinking unevenly and cracking. Tchefuncte potters often omitted these steps, perhaps because they were unaware of their importance, or perhaps because clay was readily available, and they could easily make another vessel if one cracked.
The introduction of pottery was an important improvement in food storage. When these pots were kept covered, they provided a relatively dry and animal-proof, portable container. This made it easier to store food in times of plenty for use in leaner times. Tchefuncte pots also allowed stewing and other new cooking techniques to be experimented with and developed for the first time.
Most of the other utensils and tools Tchefuncte Indians used were very similar to those Poverty Point Indians made. These included smoking pipes; stone, bone, and antler spear points; ground stone atlatl weights; mortars; bone fishhooks; clay cooking balls; and other butchering, hide-working, and woodworking tools.
In contrast to Poverty Point Indians, Tchefuncte Indians did not specialize in making stone beads, pendants, or microtools, and they did not usually import materials to make tools and ornaments. Although some innovations from the Poverty Point Culture were carried over, most Tchefuncte tools and most Tchefuncte settlement patterns resemble those of the Meso-Indians.
Information about this era comes largely from coastal regions of the state. Archaeologists are not sure how Indians in the rest of Louisiana were living at this same time, but it is likely that their culture somewhat resembled that of the Tchefuncte Indians.