The first city in North America? It’s closer than you think.
This is a story that dates back millennia — more than three of them, in fact — to a time in which an ancient civilization of American Indian hunter-gathers built and lived among a series of massive earthworks along the Mississippi River near the present-day village of Epps in West Carroll Parish. Consisting of several massive mounds as well as six concentric half-circle ridges arranged around a central plaza, it was a ceremonial center and the focus of a trading hub that was more expansive than anything else in North America at the time. Though archeologists still have more questions than answers about the Poverty Point culture, the site has proven to be a font of information about America’s ancient people. In 2014, its importance was recognized with its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, ensuring its preservation for generations to come.
Though unprotected for years — plowed over by farmers, looted by collectors and overlooked by experts — the site is now safeguarded and under study by archeologists. Visitors can tour an interpretive center, where a number of artifacts from the site are on view, and take a guided tour of the mounds. It is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
- Poverty Point — which has been described as the oldest known city in North America — gets its name from a 19th century plantation near the site.
- It is one of only 23 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the United States and shares that designation with such places as Stonehenge, Pompei and the ancient city of Petra.
- The most striking feature of the site is its sheer size. By comparison, the site is hundreds of times larger than England’s famous Stonehenge.
- It is believed the earthen structures on the 900-acre site were built over the course of 600 years. They include the six concentric ridges, which have an outside diameter of three-quarters of a mile, and five mounds, including the 72-foot-tall “Bird Mound,” or Mound A — and which visitors can scale.
- Scientists estimate that some 2 million cubic yards of soil was used to form the earthworks — by hand.
- While other cultures have used mounds for burials or as trash heaps, experts believe Poverty Point people lived atop the half-circle ridges.
- Stone artifacts found at the site, some of which can be traced to locations as far away as Iowa and Georgia, include spear tips, various tools, small owl and human figurines, and bowls.
- A unique type of artifact found in abundance at the site are “Poverty Point Objects,” which are small clay balls scientists believe were heated up and used for cooking.
- Experts aren’t sure why the original Poverty Point culture abandoned the site in 1100 B.C., although they have determined that a subsequent, much smaller culture established a settlement there around 700 A.D. After that culture also abandoned the site, it remained unsettled until its rediscovery in the late 1800s and subsequent study by archeologists in the early 20th century.
- UNESCO World Heritage sites are cultural and heritage sites that are determined to be of outstanding value to humanity. Among other things, UNESCO provides emergency assistance for such sites in danger, raises public awareness, and helps local governments safeguard the sites.
- In 1962, the federal government declared Poverty Point a National Historical Landmark, helping preserve it for study.
England has Stonehenge. Egypt has the pyramids. And Louisiana has Poverty Point, which, while not as well-known as those other sites of antiquity, is every bit as fascinating and awe-inspiring. Offering a glimpse into the lives of the region’s first residents, it stands as a reminder that the area’s history pre-dates by millennia the 1718 founding of New Orleans — and, indeed, European colonization of the New World. While much about the Poverty Point people remains a mystery, Louisianians of today should feel a connection with those original settlers when considering that the reasons for the ancient city’s proximity to the life-sustaining Mississippi River are the exact same reasons New Orleans was founded where it was 300 years ago.