Cooking in an Earth Oven

Subject Areas:
Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies

The student will:

One hourto dig one earth oven for the whole class and to make cooking balls (You may use the ones from Poverty Point Cooking Balls activity if they are made from soil and water.)
Approximately two hours for cooking and cleaning.

Poverty Point cooking balls
Aluminum foil
Bucket of water (for safety)
Hot dogs, carrots, sweet potatoes, apples
Cooking in an Earth Oven student handout
Oven mitts and tongs

Must Know Info:

The Poverty Point people developed a unique way of cooking their food in earth ovens. Archaeologists have discovered earth oven pits at numerous Poverty Point sites. They are usually 12 to 24 inches in diameter and nine to 20 inches deep. The ovens have been found to have from a dozen to over a hundred cooking balls. Sometimes the ovens also contain ash and burned wood fragments.

Some archaeologists have experimented with earth oven cooking. They have found that the cooking balls need to be made and air dried before using them in the earth oven. The cooking balls may be used over and over again in the earth ovens. The experimental cooking balls averaged about 10 "bakings" before they fell apart. Meat, fish, and potatoes were wrapped in leaves and then placed in the bottom of an earth oven pit on top of hot coals. Hot cooking balls were placed all around the food and the earth oven was covered with soil. The food cooked within a two hour time period. Other archaeologists have experimented with using various numbers and kinds of cooking balls to regulate the earth oven's temperatures. This hypothesis can be tested by students in the Poverty Point Ovens: Getting the Temperature Right! activity.

Students may use the cooking balls they made in the Poverty Point Cooking Balls activity to cook in an earth oven if they were made of soil and water. Do not attempt this activity with cooking balls made from play dough. Suggested foods for student earth oven cooking include "precooked" items such as hot dogs, or carrots, potatoes, and apples, which are delicious and safe when consumed only partially cooked. Be aware of safety concerns and do not let students consume partially cooked meat products from an earth oven.

Of course, the Poverty Point people did not cook hot dogs in their earth ovens. They were primarily hunters and gatherers. The most prominent sources of meat were various kinds of fish such as gar, bowfin, catfish, gaspergou, bass, and sunfish. Venison was the next most important meat source, along with rabbits, squirrels,raccoons, and oppossums. Ducks, geese, coot, herons, and turkeys were also eaten. Plants probably provided most of the Poverty Point people's food, but plants do not preserve well, so it is hard to tell exactly how much of these were eaten. The hard shells of nuts like pecans, hickory nuts, acorns, and walnuts have been found in campfires. Other plant remains which have been found are persimmons, wild grapes, hackberries, and seeds from the honey locust, goosefoot, knotweed, and doveweed. Goosefoot and knotweed are considered pests by today's farmers. A cooperative extension agent or horticultural expert may be able to show students examples of these plants. Do not eat them because they may have been sprayed with an insecticide.

Most other early peoples cooked by heating hot rocks and dropping them into containers of food to be cooked. This was not practical since the Poverty Point people lived in a river delta region where rocks were scarce.


1. Tell students that the Poverty Point way of cooking differed from other prehistoric cooking methods. Most early people cooked by heating rocks and dropping the hot rocks into containers of the food to be cooked. Ask students why Poverty Point people may have developed a different way to cook. (Few available rocks)

2. We often think of ancient people roasting their meat on open campfires. How might earth ovens have been a better way to cook? (Vegetables don't fall off when done, saves firewood, chef doesn't have to watch constantly)

3. Tell students the kinds of foods which were eaten at Poverty Point. If possible, obtain examples or pictures of these foods to show students.

4. Follow the directions on the Cooking in an Earth Oven handout to build an earth oven and cook your dinner. Keep water nearby for emergencies! ADULT SUPERVISION IS A MUST!

5. Create a Venn diagram comparing the parts of a modern day oven to an earth oven. Think about heat sources, insulation, thermostats, and timers. Consider the similarities or differences.