Changing Planet

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.

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
  • Jaime Johnson

    Artist Jenny Ellerbe’s Shared Earth project is worth a look in regards to Poverty Point. Her upcoming exhibit at the Masur Museum in Monroe, LA, too addresses the topic.

  • Gloria Gordon

    Great news for the state. Thanks go to Senator Landrieu and all those who have worked for this!

  • Richard G.Lowery

    The craftmanship of the early inhabitants is amazing. They had trade networks that extended over great expanses of the USA.
    I am particularly amazed at the small 1″ owl figurines crafted from red jasper rock with only primitive tools.

  • Patricia Bennett

    My first trip here was about 10 yrs ago when I took my son to explore the site as a homeschool outing. We were amazed at the history portrayed in the small museum and the surrounding grounds. I too thought it was a hidden treasure. So glad to see it getting the recognition it deserves!

  • Cheryl Babers Hagar

    The state has done much to improve the park since I last visited about 30 years ago. Looking forward to visiting again soon. Many thanks to Mary Landrieu!

  • Geraldine Jimenez

    I accidently came across this article and was amazed and so glad that Poverty Point is now being so recognized. Congrat Senator Landrieu. So great for Louisiana.

  • Vickie Pillars

    We are very proud of this designation. We hope this will bring jobs to this mostly agricultural part of the state. For many years our part of the state has been ignored.Maybe now we will gain a voice.

  • James Wilson

    I ran all over that place when I was a kid. And the hales use to own most of the property and the gov. Came in and took it all away just like the white man did the Indians before. It was a secret then and that was along time ago. I can tell ya some story’s about the water hole there that it took a drilling rig and all the equipment and the offic trailer an pick ups. And u cant even find the boom to the crane that was there ether. Yea it is still Indian spirits there today.

  • Susan Hollis

    In all fairness, I would like to give shout outs to Dr. Joe Saunders and his assistant Mrs. Reca. B Jones. Not only did they work tirelessly at Poverty Point but other sites around the area. There is not time enough or room here to tell the tales of these two individuals and how hard they worked to learn and educate about this site. With out Mrs.Jones there would not be site that is even older than Poverty Point. NO MORE TALES UNLESS YOU COME HERE

  • Mark Reljac

    I hope that this designation will also include not only its ancient history but later periods as well. During the Civil War in August of 1863, skirmishes was fought near hear and across Bayou Macon. Poverty Point probably has some association with these actions. I would also like to read more of its 19th and 20th Century plantation and pioneer history as well. This is a very historic region.

  • Herodotus

    Congratulations to Poverty Point. Hard work and loyalty to a cause paid off.

  • Trevor Talley

    Why do you have such an issue with the name of this fascinating place? Names are part of history just like anything else.

  • Cajun

    Call It what you want it does not belong to the “world” but to the State of La

  • w. webb

    Congrats to Poverty Point. I see a home school trip in our future. Sad the senator is using this for her bid for re election. Just like using her dear old dad in commercials.

  • Terry Wright

    You need a wild imagination just think of what kind of what was therecause there’s nothing to see. But if they can guess what was there and get people to buy into it more power to them.

  • Marybeth Dawes

    I am drawn to all things Native American to begin with. My visit to the Poverty Point site was amazing. The tour was very informative and the guide very knowledgeable. The Visitor’s Center, though small, held a wealth of information. I bought the book on Poverty Point and read it cover to cover. For anyone who has not been, it is well worth the trip. Think outside the box and it will come alive for you!!! I am ready to go back

  • pat buie

    I hear one of my former classmates, Dr. George Riser was also instrumental in having Poverty Point recognized in such an influential way. I have carried guest there for many years and we in Louisiana should be proud to have Poverty Point named to such distinguishing honors. Thank you Dr. Riser, you have made us famous.

  • Tariq Hossenbux

    It’s interesting that Egypt is mentioned because these two centers are both on almost the same latitude. Can’t wait to hear what artifacts will be uncovered in the future.

  • Martha Burnet

    The first thought that came to our mind (husband & I) was: wow, a pyramid. Too bad the Catholics burned up all of that historical data when they burned down the library in Alexandria. Can you even begin to imagine what would have been found? What knowledge we would have? We are definitely going to visit here.

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