Louisiana’s Best-Kept Secret Now a World Heritage Site

 World Heritage Recognition Granted June 22, 2014

You’ve probably never heard of it, but that’s about to change. This archaeological site is so exceptional that the international World Heritage Committee today granted the United States request for inscription on the World Heritage list maintained by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization).

Welcome to Poverty Point, Louisiana. Eh? When I first learned of the place, it sounded like, oh, maybe New Orleans’ answer to Ellis Island—probably some immigration gathering-spot on a spit in the Mississippi River.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong. It’s not poor, it’s not on a point, it’s nowhere near New Orleans, and it’s not on the Mississippi—although it might have been long ago. More than 3,000 years ago, in fact. Around the time Tutankhamun reigned in Egypt.

The U.S. nomination for adding Poverty Point to the World Heritage list.
The U.S. nomination for adding Poverty Point to the World Heritage list.

Poverty Point is the name of a vast, subtle ruin on the bank of today’s Bayou Macon, a tributary of the Mississippi in northeastern Louisiana, partway between Monroe, and Vicksburg MS. Turn north off I-20 and you can be there in about half an hour. Its awkward name comes from that of a plantation that once occupied the area. The site is the largest known complex built that long ago by hunter-gatherers in North America, maybe even in the world. What amazes archaeologists is that hunter-gatherers aren’t supposed to build city-like complexes. Normally, it takes more developed agricultural cultures to do that. But the Poverty Pointers—there’s got to be a better name!—were apparently the nexus of a trading network that reached from the upper Mississippi to the coast of Georgia, and a lapidary manufacturing center to boot.

The original complex, as best we can discern, comprised a number of mounds, including one that could have been a hundred feet high. It’s about 70 feet today, still quite a landmark in this flat Delta country. But its true extent lay forgotten for millennia, awaiting the invention of photography and human flight to be rediscovered: Six concentric, semicircular ridges, of which the outermost sweeps across a span of 1.2 kilometers, almost three-quarters of a mile. Each ridge may have been six feet high, each supporting a row of huts—we don’t know what kind—all centered on a wide, flat 37-acre plaza facing the river. Post-hole remnants show that circular structures also stood there, “woodhenges” of unknown purpose.

Trees like these bald cypress from the nearby Tensas River National Wildlife Reserve would have supplied the posts for "woodhenge"-like structures. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot
Trees like these bald cypress from the nearby Tensas River National Wildlife Reserve would have supplied the posts for “woodhenge”-like structures. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

The Poverty Point occupants vanished long before the rise of the Native American cultures we know today. The mounds survived, if diminished, but erosion wore the ridges down to a foot or two (top photo). The plantation workers actually farmed over them, the plowmen probably cursing the oddly lumpy ground they had to tame. Eventually the plantation closed; trees grew. Except for the mounds, the extent of the ruin was literally too big to see from the ground, and well-disguised even from the air.

When the Army Corps of Engineers made a routine aerial photography sweep in 1938, nothing was noticed. The photos went into the files. In 1952 archaeologist James Ford reviewed those photographs and saw the pattern of the semicircles.

It must have been quite a “What the ——?” moment for him. PovPt 1938 photo-adj

The place is now a State Historic Site, with additional support from the National Park Service.  On June 22, the World Heritage Committee, meeting in Doha, Qatar, accepted the U.S. nomination of Poverty Point for inscription, making it the country’s 22nd World Heritage site.

Louisiana hopes World Heritage inscription will boost tourism to its economically struggling northeast corner, especially from profitable international visitors attuned to World Heritage designations.

Inscription was not assured

The nomination could have been denied or deferred due to modest issues with the site. A small highway runs right across the plaza and cuts through the ridges. While there seems no immediate danger of inappropriate development near the site, some experts want a better-regulated buffer zone around it. (I recall the ugly viewing tower that loomed over Gettysburg for decades, thankfully demolished in 2000.)

Then there’s the diplomatically awkward refusal of the U.S. to pay its UNESCO dues, ordered by Congressional fiat because the agency admitted Palestine. UNESCO makes no inscription decisions; that falls to the independent World Heritage Committee. But the Committee relies on UNESCO for administrative support. An eleventh-hour move by Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu last week restored the provision—previously stripped-out by Congress—that would pay World Heritage dues (about $700,000).

Louisiana now has the hoped-for designation, but research shows that World Heritage status alone does not guarantee a tourism windfall, as reported at the Destination Stewardship Center. It will likely take enthusiastic promotional and organizational support from the state and from local communities to do that. Now, at least, they can boast of the best international endorsement any place can get.

So take a look. Bring along your imagination. There’s a decent visitor center and excellent interpretive tram and walking tours to help you picture the remarkable people who constructed this place.

We know much of Egypt’s ancient cultures, built with durable stone, written with hieroglyphics. Those who built with less permanent silt and wood, who traded across equal or greater expanses, deserve our attention as well, even if their works have suffered more at the hands of time.

Changing Planet

National Geographic Fellow Emeritus; Founding Director, Nat Geo Center for Sustainable Destinations; former Geotourism Editor, National Geographic Traveler; CEO, Destination Stewardship Center; President, Focus on Places LLC