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Poverty Point Earthworks Named World Heritage Site

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The Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point, a state park in Louisiana, have been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site—making it the 22nd U.S. site on the World Heritage List, which also includes the Grand Canyon and the Cahokia Mounds. The designation is a global recognition of the site’s universal value.

“Located in Louisiana’s Lower Mississippi Valley, Poverty Point comprises a remarkable system of monumental mounds and ridges built into the landscape for residential and ceremonial use by a sophisticated society of hunter-fisher-gatherers,” reads a press release from the U.S. Department of State. “The impressive site survives as a testament to Native American culture and heritage. We are proud that the 26 Native American Tribes of United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) joined us in support of this World Heritage nomination.”

Poverty Point features an extensive collection of earthworks constructed 3,100 to 3,700 years ago including a vast complex of structures, enormous concentric ridges, and a large plaza. It may even be the largest hunter-gatherer settlement that ever existed.

A painting of Poverty Point mound site by Martin Pate.

According to the Louisiana Office of State Parks, it was built eight centuries after the Egyptian pyramids, but before the great Mayan pyramids in what is now northeastern Louisiana. The sophisticated builders constructed a complex array of earthen mounds and ridges overlooking the Mississippi River flood plain. The central construction at Poverty Point consists of six rows of concentric ridges, which form a semi-ellipse or C-shape that is divided into sections by at least four aisles. The outermost ring is almost three-quarters of a mile.

To build this complex array, builders had to move as many as 53 million cubic feet of soil. Considering that one cubic foot of soil can weigh anywhere from 75 to 100 pounds, and that the laborers carried it in 50-pound baskets, it’s a great communal engineering feat. Not only that, but they imported stone and ore from great distances. Projectiles and stone tools found at Poverty Point were made from raw materials that originated in the Ouachita and Ozark Mountains and in the Ohio and Tennessee River valleys.

“Poverty Point is an extraordinary settlement built by an ancient hunter-gather society more than 3,000 years ago that deserves to be recognized as one of the world’s great archaeological sites,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a statement. “It is a vital part of Native American heritage and culture, and its inscription as a World Heritage Site will draw visitors from around the world to Louisiana, providing an economic boost to local communities.”

Poverty Point was nominated to become a World Heritage Site in January 2013.

“Senator [Mary] Landrieu raised global awareness of Poverty Point and its Outstanding Universal Value, the hallmark for inscription as a World Heritage site. The Committee members agreed that Poverty Point deserves to be recognized alongside Stonehenge, the pyramids of Egypt and other great archaeological sites,” said Acting Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Rachel Jacobson.

In 1962 Poverty Point was designated as a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

This image shows the eastern approach to Mound A at Poverty Point.