January 31, 2013

Native American gigantic mound was built in just 90 days

Map of the earthworks
The Poverty Point earthworks (Louisiana, USA), are a very large construction dated to c. 3200 years ago. Among the various parts of the impressive complex is Bird Mound, which spans 50,000 square meters and needed almost 300,000 cubic meters of earth to be built. 

This huge task was previously thought to have been accomplished in a long time, however new research of the layers indicates the opposite: that it was finished in just three months, what apparently required thousands of people passing baskets of earth in "bucket brigade" style.

"Given that a band of 25-30 people is considered quite large for most hunter-gatherer communities, it's truly amazing that this ancient society could bring together a group of nearly 10,000 people, find some way to feed them and get this mound built in a matter of months," Kidder says.

One caveat is that they surely were not "hunter-gatherers" but at least part-time farmers but it is still an impressive feat.

Source: Eureka Alert (via Pileta). 


  1. I wonder if earlier versions of things like this is one way agriculture could have started i.e. hunter-gatherers creating some central burial / religious site where they gathered for a yearly festival bringing food with them for a week or a few days - including wild seeds they'd gathered. Those seeds end up in latrines around the site so eventually the holy site becomes densely packed with wild wheat or corn or whatever was common in that climate allowing a permanent settlement - maybe of priests?

    Just a thought.

    1. I think it is the other way around: first agriculture (or other kind of stable food source like good fisheries), then using all that surplus to feed workers to do some kind of special work like this one or Gölbeki Tepe or Stonehenge or the pyramids...

      Agriculture is not linked initially to manure fertilization but at most to fertilization via ashes or none at all. Also please consider that human (and pig and dog...) feces are too strong to be used as fertilizing without further decomposition (compost, biogas production...). Not all feces are usable as manure just like that, only herbivore ones work that way.

      It is generally acknowledged, mostly because of the archaological record says so, that agriculture began with populations specialized in wild cereal foraging (Mesolithic proper), which gradually led to domestication, maybe accidentally at first, as the weaker spikes were the ones to fall off in the way to processing and hence selection for them may have been accidental at first.

  2. The context of the Poverty Point culture in the pre-Columbian civilizations of the New World was greatly underappreciated until very recently. As explained in a post at my blog reviewing the new reports regarding the emerging understanding a little more than a year ago, this civilization itself dervived from an earlier one in nearby Monroe, Louisiana. Poverty point is to the copper age New World what the leading cities of Sumeria were to the copper age world of West Eurasia. It was an important source for almost all of the Neolithic civilizations of the New World.

    A new civilization "(flourishing 1600 BCE to 1000 BCE)" that "appears to be derived from this first wave of [Monroe, Lousiana] mound builders appears at Poverty Point, which is within a day's walk of the earlier sites in Louisiana. This urban center is much larger in scale, perhaps comparable to a medium sized archaic era Greek city state, and shows clear signs of a trade network that extends as far as Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the North and the Ozarks in the West. It used copper and engaged in fine stoneworking. Its trade network may have even extended farther still. The way that its structures are aligned with solstices and equinoxes, its burial practices, its pottery, and the arrangement of structures in the complex, appear to strongly echo and to probably be antecedent to the Mesoamerican civilizations of the Olmecs (from ca. 1200 BCE), the Mayans (from ca. 900 BCE), and the Woodlands Hopi of Ohio (from ca. 400 BCE)." The Mesoamerican Olmec and Mayan civilizations, in turn, were antecedent to the Incas of Western South America. "Timing and broad outlines of the way that their communities were planned also suggest that a couple of large scale village network societies in the Amazon, ca. 0 CE to 1650 CE, may have been influenced or informed to some extent by the Poverty Point culture or by Mesoamerican societies that were influenced at a formative point by the Poverty Point culture."

    The Hopi culture derived from Poverty Point, in turn gave rise to the Mississippian culture centered at Chahokia near modern day Saint Louis. They "worked copper, had fine stonework, constructed gigantic earthworks with invisible interior elements (layers of black earth, white gravel and red earth, inside mounds corresponding more or less to the layers of hell, Earth and heaven in their cosmology) on a scale comparable to the Egyptian pyramid at Giza or the largest Mesoamerican pyramids" and the "central complex may have housed 10,000 to 20,000 people, and the larger area may have housed 75,000 people, making the complex a bit larger than the largest urbanized complexes of the Amazon (about 50,000), and in the top ten of Mesoamerican cities at their Pre-Columbian peak (the largest urban area in the Pre-Columbian New World, in the vicinity of what is now Mexico City had about 300,000 people). It was by far the largest urbanized area in what is now the United States and Canada. . . . Chahokia's trading network, colonies and strong cultural influences extended throughout the entire Mississippi basin from the Rocky Mountains to the Great Lakes to the Appalacian Mountains and also throughout all or most of the American South where Chahokia's culture overlaps heavily with the Southeastern Cultural Complex. For example, trade brought Chahokia Great White shark teeth from the Atlantic, and minerals from Georgia and Alabama. The mythology and rituals of the Osage Indians correspond closely to the Chahokian ceremonial system that we know from archaeology. Indian tribes that speak the Sixouian languages, of which the Osage language is a part, were spoken in a linguistic area ca. 1500 CE that corresponds closely to the core Chahokian aka Mississippian cultural area."

    1. Truth is that I had never heard of these earthworks before and that is probably the case of many readers as well and an additional reason to mention this finding.

      I don't have time to read your article in depth right now (later I will, I promise), so let me ask a question instead: are you implying that part of those earthworks used to be homes?, homes in a style similar to that of Anasazi peoples? It sounds fascinating, really.

    2. I am reading a bit more on this site and it seems that, in the best case, the homes would be located on top of the mounds and not inside them, as would be the case with the Anasazi culture's sites (not mounds either, although the semicircular disposition is similar admittedly). Alternatively they'd have some other "ritual" use.

      Also nobody seems to imply any actual cultural relationship between them and the Pueblo peoples, but rather with the Mississippian macro-culture area, which also sports other earthworks in Ohio, etc.

      Still my knowledge of these fascinating peoples is limited so I can't gauge the whole picture well enough.

  3. How do they know that dogs pulling travoix baskets were not used? They were the normal method of moving camps and distance-gathering firewood/buffalo chips before the Spaniard's horses.

    1. My own improvised thought is that dog-pulled sledges or travoix should not be able to carry too much weight (dogs are sturdy but not really traction animals in the way oxen or horses can be, also their meat-based diet is relatively costly). Also, provided enough people was available, probably the "bucket brigade" method is pretty good for this kind of job. Dogs are known almost worldwide since "always" and I have never known of them being used for such kind of jobs, either practically (such as the large funerary slabs moved by some Malay peoples, etc.) or in theory. Of course there's a possibility that they helped in some part of the work (why to have them idle if every person was working, right?)

    2. True, (Spanish) horse reintroduction led to selection for smaller dogs due to dietary requirements (not in the Arctic, where meat/fish was seasonally 'cheaper' than grazing), but note the recent article on increased selection for amylase production (starch-digestion enzyme) in both (dogs and man) vs (wolves and apes) especially regarding 'part-time farming'. [Note (per Tobacco Atlas) tobacco cultivation existed for 5,000 years before evidence of pipe smoking. I wrote about that in my Bakar-Dade blog post.]

      Regarding large stone slab moving, this was based on giant rainforest logs lever-rolled lengthwise on narrow trails by a few men, I've seen the diagrams, no baskets...


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