Reassessing the History of the Poverty Point Phenomenon: A Case Study from the Jaketown Site, Mississippi, USA
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Towards the end of the Late Archaic period (ca. 4800-3000 cal BP), between 3,600 and 3,300 years ago, Native Americans engineered a colossal earthwork complex that covers approximately 200 hectares in northeast Louisiana. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site known as Poverty Point and the namesake for a material culture pattern documented to varying degrees at sites throughout the Lower Mississippi Valley (LMV). However, the nature of interactions between these sites and the type site is poorly understood. The people who constructed the Poverty Point site lived on wild food resources. They hunted, fished, and gathered food from the river bottoms and surrounding woodlands more than 1,000 years before food production became widespread in the region. The level of sociopolitical organization required to create such a place contradicts anthropological theories regarding the social structure of foraging societies. Consequently, the Poverty Point site is a globally relevant example of highly complex behavior by small-scale societies that lack obvious signs of social hierarchy. The mounds at Poverty Point were among the first built in the Eastern Woodlands after a millennium-long hiatus, and their enormous scale was unlike anything that came before and matched those of Mississippian chiefdoms two millennia later.To better understand the events that led to the creation of the Poverty Point site and the historical processes that comprised the poorly understood Poverty Point phenomenon, I conducted four research expeditions at the Jaketown site in west-central Mississippi. Covering approximately 85 hectares, Jaketown is the largest Poverty Point-affiliated site outside the type site. Jaketown also has the most earthworks of any Poverty Point-affiliated site other than the type site. There have been 15 mounds documented at Jaketown, including at least three Late Archaic period constructions. Furthermore, the material assemblage documented at Jaketown shows a high degree of similarity with the type site. These factors combine to make Jaketown a critical site for understanding the historical processes that led to the creation of the Poverty Point site. Extant regional histories situate Poverty Point as a center of innovation that exported material culture, practices, and cultural identity to presumably contemporary sites in the region. The data generated by my research contradict this model. We processed 11 new AMS 14C samples, adding to the existing 22, and I created a high-resolution chronological model of site occupation at Jaketown. The model, combined with artifacts, geoarchaeological, and paleoethnobotanical data, demonstrate that some practices considered to originate at Poverty Point, such as mound building and the importation of nonlocal lithics, occurred first at Jaketown. Our work also demonstrates that categorical frameworks that employ typological entities like the archaeological culture and the type site bias regional histories by suggesting radial diffusion of cultural identity from a center to a periphery. These biases are compounded when chronological control is poor because typological entities stand in for absolute time, which artificially flattens the regional chronology and implies that innovations and cultural identity originate at the type site, or center, and spread to the periphery, which is assumed to be contemporary in time. Our findings support an inversion of most extant models. Communities throughout the LMV, like the one at Jaketown, did not receive their cultural identity from the Poverty Point site. Rather, they had their own traditions, practices, and histories that converged on Poverty Point. In this model, Poverty Point is not a source of outward diffusion but an endpoint for multiple streams of Native American history–it was a cultural sink where disparate histories combined to form one of the most unique archaeological signatures in the world. The need for an alternative framing is apparent after acknowledging the flaws of typological frameworks. I found that using Native American philosophies as theory is a useful approach. Relying on insights from American Indian scholars, the burst of mound building at Jaketown ca. 3400 cal BP was a form of communal performance meant to restore balance to relations that were in flux, manifested as environmental volatility, which is well documented at Jaketown and throughout the LMV. When the volatility continued, the occupants of Jaketown deliberately decommissioned what had become a powerful, mounded landscape. Considering the equally eventful burst of earth moving that occurred at the Poverty Point site shortly afterward, I argue that the community at Jaketown went to Poverty Point, along with others, and added to the monumental complex there through a multi-community performance, like the one at Jaketown but on a much larger scale.
Chair and Committee
Tristram R. Kidder
Sarah Baitzel, Xinyi Liu, Natalie G. Mueller, Jennifer R. Smith,
Grooms, Seth Bradley, "Reassessing the History of the Poverty Point Phenomenon: A Case Study from the Jaketown Site, Mississippi, USA" (2022). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 2795.
Available for download on Wednesday, January 03, 2024