Camping, boating, hiking, birding, hunting, fishing, field-craft, trading and scrumptious BBQ cuisine has been the way of life in Northeast Louisiana from at least 4000 BC(E)! We enjoyed our Louisiana Master Naturalist’s 4th quarter meeting at the Poverty Point National Monument which has a unique and spectacular site of Native American Mounds. People around here still call BBQ grills ‘pits’ and originally people here literally cooked in pits in the ground, and in the absence of steel grills they used skillfully shaped clay balls with radiator fins to protract and control cooking time and temperatures!

Shaped for their thermal qualities clay cooking balls in a fire pit at Poverty Point National Monument.

Shaped for their thermal qualities clay cooking balls in a fire pit at Poverty Point National Monument.

The unique ridge earthworks of Poverty Point near Epps, Louisiana show up well with pooled rainwater in December. Viewed from summit of Mound A. Taken on Pentax K-1. C. Paxton image and copyright.

The unique ridge earthworks of Poverty Point near Epps, Louisiana show up well with pooled rainwater in December. Viewed from summit of Mound A. Taken on Pentax K-1. C. Paxton image and copyright.

The distinctive Christmas tree is decorated with spear heads.

The distinctive Christmas tree is decorated with spear heads!

Here are the oldest of the largest mounds in the USA and the site has earned justifiable international recognition as the1001st  UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of the richest archeological sites in the Americas in terms of both the variety and the quantity of artifacts discovered.

Entering the site park you see in an expansive clearing of the bottomland hardwood forest, circles marked out on the grass where large structures once stood and the astonishing ridge mounds set out in concentric semi-hexagonal rows or arcs, built incrementally from around 1600 to 1300 BCE that were thought to bear houses and cooking pits with some ridges being sites of industrial activity. Once about 6 ft tall these ridges are lower now and visually enhanced by long grass in the Summer, between these ridges lie swales that might well have served like streets. The five lines that transect these rows are thought to have served as astronomical sighting lines from a central post on the ‘plaza’, as well as demarcation of different zones within the settlement. It feels a very sophisticated and peaceful site and the walking is very pleasant. You can climb Mound A via a well-made path and enjoy an elevated view of the site.

The Museum and picnic area at Poverty Point in Summer.

The Museum and picnic area at Poverty Point in Summer.

You’ll also find the Visitors’ Center here perched on the Bayou Macon overlook, fringed with Crepe Myrtles and within it, see an eye-popping film about the site and a representative collection of the immense productivity of the remarkable people who lived here. Archaeologist Jon Gibson said this culture demonstrates a level of organisation and integration amongst hunter-gatherers thought previously possible only in advanced agrarian societies. Nobody understands the purpose of the site and its elements for sure, beacuse the people who built it are long gone, but it is undeniably a civilization centre of the highest importance and represents a herculean communal effort and was occupied for over 600 yrs!  The site is veiled in as much mystery as Stone Henge or the Egyptian Pyramids, and its unique structure and the associated, highly remarkable, archaeological evidence has stimulated diverse theories about its origins! This site was for the living rather than funerary and intriguing post holes and the various mounds indicate that there was diverse ritualistic activity.

This site turned our traditional thinking on its head, because the people who built it relied upon hunter-gathering rather than farming as a basis for their livelihood. Furthermore they appear to have organised their living/working areas according to guilds: lapidarists working beads, some even in copper, others working fine spear heads of chert and flint, others soap stone bowls, or beautifully polished haematite plum weights for nets, others pottery etc. in dwellings sited upon a succession of raised concentric arced earthworks.

Members of Louisiana Master Naturalists Northeast hiking at the Poverty Point World Heritage Site.

Members of Louisiana Master Naturalists Northeast hiking at the Poverty Point World Heritage Site. Sigma DP2. C.Paxton image and copyright.

Not only that, but they were so efficient in their provision of fish, waterfowl, frogs and turtles from the nearby swampland and Bayou Macon that they didn’t appear to need much megafauna in their diet: either they weren’t relying on bison or deer or they filleted them off-site! They didn’t even need to eat the large local river mussels. So, far from being poor in 1500 BC, this site was extraordinarily rich! Mark told us that 3/4 of their food was aquatic!

Trade items from as far afield as Michigan have been found here indicating a social network with thousand mile reach. The huge Mound A. aka the ‘Bird Mound’ is a World Wonder and it used to be taller. To consider that this was likely constructed by men, women and children with baskets full of heavy earth in the course of one season is mind boggeling.

Mound A is 72 ft tall and 700ft long

Mound A is 72 ft tall and 700ft long

I urge you to read up on the place before you visit, and to explore the excellent museum on site.

Anybody who has walked in Mayan Tikal or similar Mayan ruins of Central America will be familiar with the strong sense of locus deii. Unlike those Mayan sites, these mounds were built of Loess (locally abundant wind-blown prairie soil) rather than stone, but even so ‘Mound A’ gave us and the Indians an elevated view of the surrounding area unmatched before nor since!

We convened at the site’s excellent museum and after admiring the displays and the museum’s distinctive Christmas Tree with painted spear heads we enjoyed the Poverty Point informational film. Afterwards Park Ranger Mark Brink gave us a lesson in Atlatl throwing. It was great fun.  As a 14 year-old I’d thrown the javelin in field athletics and generally been fairly sorry to see the results. Not so with this Atlatl. Mark showed us how to hook the spear onto the weighted lever stick and he succeeded in striking the target hay bale. If it had been a deer or a swamp rabbit it would have been dinner! My spears soared safely over the imaginary deer’s head and sailed on a good 70 or 80 yds in total! My direction was good but my elevation was way off. All of us who wanted to try, were able to have turns with it. Mark was on target!

Stuart Hodnett casting his spear!

Stuart Hodnett casting his spear!

Here I am casting my spear. The Atlatl is weighted for better momentum and flicks the spear with extra leverage! K. Paxton image and copyright.

Here I am casting my spear. The Atlatl is weighted for better momentum and flicks the spear with extra leverage! K. Paxton image and copyright.

Kimmie recoiling the Atlatl in preparartion to launch!

Kimmie recoiling the Atlatl in preparartion to launch!

Ranger Mark describing the advantages of the Atlatle spear thrower. C.Paxton image.

Ranger Mark describing the advantages of the Atlatle spear thrower. C.Paxton image and copyright.

The weather was bracing and woodpeckers and squirrels were in evidence and the Bayou Macon was high and coloured cafe au lait. We were fortunate to be guided by Ranger Mark Brink who maintained expert commentary at various points of interest and proudly anounced that we can look forward to the imminent publication of some very interesting new discoveries!! Apparently they will help us see the ancient complex in an exciting new light!

We climbed up Mound A and could clearly see the vales between some of the concentric arc ridges filled with water.

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The sorrowful modern name was given to the C19th plantation on the site by 1851, ironic that it describes one of the richest archaeological sites in the western hemisphere! It was customary for some to name plantations in a manner that would put-off ‘shirt-tail kin’ and other mendicants. The nearby Tensas River Wildlife Refuge offers a taste of how splendidly abundant precolonial ecology must have been. Visitors should be sure to visit Tensas River NWR for wildlife watching. Bayou Macon connects with the Tensas River. Here, farmers share a third of their crops with the wildlife in a unique programme that helps the deer, Louisiana Black bears and birds thrive. This area had Red Wolves as late as the 1950’s and is thought to be one of the best places to see Louisiana Black Bears.  In addition to the wildlife safari drive, there are forest trails through pristine bottomland woods with their understory of Saw Palmetto and native bamboo, to a wildlife hide where in Spring a crèche of heron chicks gape in sweet expectation of returning parents, and there are piers that will take you out into the cypress swamp. When you see the Spanish moss festooning the trees, remember fondly that it was used by poverty point society to temper their pottery. That Saw-palmetto was an important part of their tool-kit, great for roof thatch and their pharmacopeia!

The flock is composed of Grackles and male and female Red-winged Blackbirds.

The flock is composed of Grackles and male and female Red-winged Blackbirds.

We had an amazing trip to Tensas River NWR  last Sunday. I wasn’t expecting to see a great deal as it is getting wintry and the reptiles are less active, but wow, we were very pleasantly surprised. As in Cumbria, over Winter here, we are visited by many migratory birds.  Recently I read an old book that describes how things used to be back in the mid 1970’s and it saddened me to read that there used to be vast flocks of birds and I hadn’t seen such and assumed that there no longer were such wonders. I had said as much to our Pastor last time we met and I don’t know whether
he’d put in a good word for us with the Lord, or what else, but to our wonder we saw a superb wildlife show!

On approaching the wildlife refugee along the Quebec Road we saw huge numbers of flocking birds, wheeling and landing in rice fields being harried by birds of prey, others roosting as thick as leaves in nearby trees and yet others washing themselves in puddles safe in the knowledge that the raptors had rather too much on their plates already.

As a Northern Harrier swooped towards one flank of the flock in the rice field, the birds nearest launched to flight like a vast beast and they black-out the view at their thickest! It was an avian blizzard.  While those birds closest to immediate danger bellied out and billowed about in a bewildering, mesmerizing storm, above it all a Red-tailed Hawk sailed high overhead, presumably in search of a safe target as the flock exploded, then just as rapidly veered back in an altered direction. A large section of the flock, perhaps as many as a quarter ascended in a coordinated streaming trail over the Quebec road and away to some nearby trees.

We wanted to get closer, a little further down the road and we pulled over to watch adjacent to the tree roosts and also the bathing birds. The pictures capture something of the atmosphere. As a photographer I was as bemused as a predator! It seemed hopeless to adequately capture this wonder, I tried anyway. Kimmie shot video! The roosting birds were being watched by a very handsome Red-tailed Hawk with a huge crop bulge!

It flew right past us and the bluish shot I snapped through the windscreen!

The bathing birds were great fun to watch. You’ll have seen the sort of thing in your garden birdbaths. The scale of this show was epic. Some sedate drinking, yes, but lots more of the flapping, splashing, preening and fluffing of feathers. The flock is comprised of Red-winged Blackbirds and Grackles.

Grackles and Red-wings blacken the sky as a Northern Harrier homes in.

Grackles and Red-wings blacken the sky as a Northern Harrier homes in. C. Paxton image and copyright.

Eventually we moved off to the refuge itself and there we saw far less wildlife. How could it compete?

Even so we saw another Red-tailed Hawk right beside the road and more Northern Harriers. One of them was settled with a kill.

We crept up close to where one Northern Harrier was perched feeding on something on the other side of a small lake.

Off the Africa Lake road we saw Two Red-eared Sliders were basking on a log in the weak sunshine. The ‘gator ponds were flooded and further along, the road was closed due to high water. We were so tired that we opted for an early return.

On the way back we saw a distant bear by the tree-line across a large corn field and fine American Kestrels on the wires along the Quebec Road.