It's "not poor, it’s not on a point, it’s nowhere near New Orleans..."
June 23, 2014 12:57 PM   Subscribe

On Sunday, Poverty Point, LA, was granted World Heritage recognition by UNESCO's (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Committee.

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...

From the Louisiana Department of Cultural Development: "What is special about the Poverty Point site?
  • The earthworks are massive: 5 mounds and 6 C-shaped ridges surround a huge plaza.
  • The geometric design is unique in the world and is a masterpiece of engineering.
  • The site is 3,400 years old.
  • At the time the earthworks were constructed, they were the largest in North America.
  • The site was the major political, trading, and ceremonial center of its day in North America.
  • The people who built and lived at the site did not raise crops.

    The state hopes the World Heritage designation will encourage tourism.
  • posted by msbubbaclees (20 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
    Whereas I hope that this won't lead to vandalism to the site from chuckleheads concerned about "UN World Government" takeover.

    But really -- cool, and thanks for bringing this to our attention. I'd never heard of this site before.
    posted by Nerd of the North at 1:06 PM on June 23, 2014

    Reminds me of Cahokia, which I had managed to not learn about either. Pauketat's book probably contains more conjecture than some folks like, but it's a good starting point.
    posted by benito.strauss at 1:14 PM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

    From the first link:
    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.
    Fascinating, but Wikipedia includes references of prior investigations to the area, though it wasn't until James A. Ford and Robert Neitzel that there was lengthy study and publication on the site.
    posted by filthy light thief at 1:15 PM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

    Cahokia, or Carcosa?
    posted by Apocryphon at 1:16 PM on June 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

    Post-hole remnants show that circular structures also stood there, “woodhenges” of unknown purpose.

    Wow, Laurie Anderson was right (again). Let X = X.

    The state hopes the World Heritage designation will encourage tourism.

    Last year, I spent about three weeks on Socotra, another UNESCO World Heritage site. And one of the recurring themes I heard from locals there (including some who had worked with the U.N. on their preservation efforts) was that the World Heritage designation was actually something of a curse. They felt that the U.N. was very much interested in preserving the plant life and forestry on Socotra, but didn't care a whit about the actual culture of Socotra, i.e., the unwritten language (Soqotri) and folk traditions that were rapidly disappearing under Yemen's rule. They also felt that the increased tourism and footprint resulting from the UNESCO designation was actually having a deleterious effect on the landscape. Yemeni business owners in Hadiboh (the archipelago's largest city) were also encouraged, through the flow of tourists, to modernize and make the main island more Western-adaptive than it currently is. The Socotri are only now beginning to get into the game as tour guides, but almost all the other businesses in Hadiboh are Yemeni-owned, so the money they make doesn't even necessarily increase the quality of living for native Socotri. It was an eye-opening perspective for me on how these ostensibly valuable preservative designations can actually conflict directly with (or, in the worst case, threaten) the populations who call these places home.
    posted by mykescipark at 1:17 PM on June 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

    They also felt that the increased tourism resulting from the UNESCO designation was actually having a deleterious effect on the landscape

    That would be my concern for locations that are not currently inhabited, like Poverty Point. More tourists means more facilities to support the tourists (roads, bathrooms, places to buy food, general use items and mementos, etc).
    posted by filthy light thief at 1:22 PM on June 23, 2014

    Here's the complete list of sites added in this round, pushing the total to 1001.

    (and here are all US sites)
    posted by effbot at 1:23 PM on June 23, 2014

    Isn't there a line of conjecture that herding/aquaculture/horticulture was used in place of large scale agriculture at places like PP?
    posted by The Whelk at 1:25 PM on June 23, 2014

    Sorry, meant to include a link to the LA Department of Cultural Development page where the bullets in the post came from. The bottom of that page has several additional links for more information.
    posted by msbubbaclees at 1:27 PM on June 23, 2014

    from the Cahokia Wikipedia article:
    One of the major problems that large centers like Cahokia faced was keeping a steady supply of food, and waste disposal was also an issue, which made Cahokia an unhealthy place. Because it was such an unhealthy place to live, the town had to rely on social and political attractions to bring in a steady supply of new immigrants; otherwise the town's death rate would have caused it to be abandoned earlier.[13]
    posted by Bwithh at 1:40 PM on June 23, 2014

    They also felt that the increased tourism and footprint resulting from the UNESCO designation was actually having a deleterious effect on the landscape.

    UNESCO doesn't seem to be that impressed; if I'm reading things correctly, they've recalled the original decision from 2008, and have given Yemen until 1 February 2015 to show that they're actually going to do something more than just building roads all over the main island (apparently it has the "highest per capita road allocations in the region and possibly the world").

    The recommendations include "empowering local communities to acquire a leading role in managing their natural heritage" and "establish a monitoring system to ensure tourism sustainability and its minimal impact on the natural heritage and associated cultural values" and a bunch of other things.

    I'm not enough up to date on local politics to tell if this will have any effect, but at least UNESCO doesn't just slap a label on something and leave it to the member state to do whatever they want with it.
    posted by effbot at 2:19 PM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

    Cahokia and Poverty Point, two places I only learned about by conquering them in Civ IV.

    This is very cool news, though. Anything that helps get the point across that there were some amazing and complex civilizations here well before Europeans turned up is a good thing.
    posted by davros42 at 3:16 PM on June 23, 2014

    That 1938 aerial is really striking. I wonder if the people living there had noticed the pattern at all?
    posted by Dip Flash at 3:16 PM on June 23, 2014

    A cool recent finding about Poverty Point is that the majority of it may have been constructed in as little as a single 30-90 day span, involving a concentrated 270,000 person-hours of labour - this is based on a very fine-grained geoarchaeological study of the sediments.

    Together with Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, Poverty point is something of a paradigm-breaker in archaeology since the associated societies "aren't supposed" to have enough "social complexity" (whatever that is) to invest in such substantial monumentality.
    posted by Rumple at 3:38 PM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

    constructed in as little as a single 30-90 day span, involving a concentrated 270,000 person-hours of labour

    Going with 90 days and ten hours a day, that's only 300 people, a lot less than I would have guessed. Even at thirty days it's only 900 people, hardly unimaginable.
    posted by Dip Flash at 3:44 PM on June 23, 2014

    There must be a zero missing from the hours, because the article uses 3000 - 9000 as the number of workers.
    posted by Dip Flash at 3:47 PM on June 23, 2014

    30 * 900 = 27,000, not 270,000.
    posted by Rumple at 3:48 PM on June 23, 2014

    Also, hopefully the academics are smarter than this and it's just sloppy reporting, but e casual sexism of sentences like this really bug me:

    Assuming that each worker may have been accompanied by at least two other family members, say a wife and a child,

    Has the writer never seen photos of the long lines of Indian women with baskets of dirt on their heads building levees and roads? It's not just men who move dirt.

    30 * 900 = 27,000, not 270,000.

    Times ten hours/day, no?
    posted by Dip Flash at 3:52 PM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

    Oh, yeah. Probably I made the same mistake they did in the news summary then..... well, here is the relevant table from the PDF (Geoarchaeology) journal. The authors' estimate 91,700 person days, at 5 hours/day (based on an experimental study from the 1960s on mound building).

    (I only skimmed the article, if anyone wants it then memail me).
    posted by Rumple at 4:05 PM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

    Poverty Point, I am sorry to say, is the most complete disappointment I have ever seen.

    You can barely tell anything is there, and the one visible and extant mound might as well be from roadside construction.
    posted by atchafalaya at 5:53 PM on June 23, 2014

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