Archaeotrek—Alternate Perceptions Magazine, November 2015
What Is The Oldest North American Mound?—Revised
by: Dr. Greg Little
The most consistent question I’m asked about American mounds is, “what was the first mound made in America?” The fact is that the answer changes because American archaeology makes ongoing progress and keeps uncovering more and more. Starting in the 1950’s the answer was that the oldest and first mound was at Poverty Point, Louisiana. Until the 1990’s or so, it was thought that the first mounds were erected at the massive Poverty Point site as early as 1800 BC—or 3800-years ago. But some archaeologists argued for a more recent date of Poverty Point, about 1600 BC.
In 1997 the oldest mound site distinction unexpectedly went to a site about 50-miles from Poverty Point, at Watson Brake, located near Monroe, Louisiana. Over 100 carbon dates were obtained at Watson Brake from samples that were taken from various locations in the 22-acre, 11-mound complex. The resulting dates centered on 3200 BC as the time that Watson Brake was constructed. Watson Brake is privately owned and is generally closed to the public, but its unexpected age led to more research at Poverty Point. Suddenly, Poverty Point was then shown to be older than previously thought. Presently, there are specific mounds and earthworks at or near Poverty Point that date to as old as 3700 BC, making it, for a brief time, the oldest known mound site—again, replacing Watson Brake’s brief tenure.
Poverty Point is a huge complex of earthworks and mounds with the earthworks arranged around what is believed to be massive bird effigy mound. This mound is 72-feet tall and measures 640-feet from wing tip to wing tip and is 710-feet from the head to the tail. A semi-octagonal (C-shaped) earthwork centers on the base of the bird mound. This earthwork is made from 5 to 7 ridges of earthen embankments that are 6-feet high and 80-feet wide. They C-shaped embankments run just under a half-mile in length and are thought to have been used as elevated platforms for houses. Poverty Point is also used as a term to describe a culture that was centered in the region and over 50 associated sites have been found in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. The people of this culture made distinctive clay balls and cube artifacts that were used for cooking and other purposes. It is known that an extensive trade network was in operation at Poverty Point extending from the Gulf of Mexico to as far north as Missouri and Tennessee.
In essence, around 5,700-years ago, a cultural group that constructed mounds and earthworks emerged in a wide-ranging region centered in Louisiana. This culture was probably the same one that made circular shell mounds along coastal areas on the Gulf and Atlantic. It is thought that there are probably older shell mounds now submerged along coastal areas.
Poverty Point’s Lower Jackson Mound Becomes The Oldest Mound
About 2-miles south of the center of the Poverty Point complex a single conical mound sits in a private cotton field. This mound is known as the Lower Jackson Mound and was once thought to be part of the main site, but most archaeologists now think it wasn’t. The mound is 8-feet tall and 130-feet in diameter. While portions of the mound were destroyed by farming, a small historic cemetery was placed on its summit which essentially preserved the site. In the 2000’s the Lower Jackson Mound was shown to date to about 3500-3700 BC then predating the Watson Brake site by several hundred years. Poverty Point archaeologists then began collecting samples from an area in the effigy mound where erosion had caused problems. Carbon testing from this area surprisingly showed that construction of the effigy mound started around 3400 BC—far older than previously thought, but not quite as old as the Lower Jackson Mound. Thus, the Lower Jackson Mound at Poverty Point was, for a time, the oldest American mound, but it appears to be almost contemporary with early earth construction at the main Poverty Point complex.
Archaic Mounds in Louisiana—Now the Oldest Known
About 6,000 years ago in the same general area of Poverty Point, relatively small mounds were erected along coastlines and rivers. They are attributed to “Archaic” cultures about which little is known. There are about 100 such sites known with the majority of them in Louisiana. The mounds do not appear to have been used for burials. However, one of the Archaic mounds, at the Monte Sano site, located north of Baton Rouge, did have cremation remains in it. In 2009, the Monte Sano mounds were carbon dated to 4000 BC making them the oldest known in America. However, 1977 carbon dates at Monte Sano reached dates as early as 4620 BC, but the 1977 dating was considered to be shaky.
Oddly, there is another Archaic site that bears a similarity to Poverty Point that became better known around 2003. It is the King George Island mound site, first recorded in 1950 but not extensively studied until the mid-2000’s. Some Louisiana archaeologists believe that the King George Island site, with crescent shaped mound embankments, may have been the forerunner of the Poverty Point Culture. There are at least 5 mounds there with the largest 10.4 feet in height. A 2005 thesis on excavations at the site found 687 artifacts with, oddly, 111 pieces of pottery among them. The oldest radiocarbon date found, among only three done at the site, dated to no earlier than 3627 B.C., meaning that it was built approximately in the same timeframe as several components near or at Poverty Point.
In summary, as far as is currently known, the Monte Sano site in Louisiana has the oldest known mounds in America. They date to as early as 4600 BC, but based on all the carbon dates and their ranges, it’s more likely they were constructed around 4000 BC. Of course, all of this will change.