Poverty Point World Heritage Site

Poverty Point World Heritage Site

This UNESCO World Heritage site is an archaeological wonder with little-known stories to tell. Discovery the secrets of Poverty Point.

Just a few miles off Interstate 20 near the Mississippi-Louisiana border is a roadside attraction unlike any you’ll find on Earth. Poverty Point UNESCO World Heritage Site is a series of raised earthen mounds, channels and ridges, made by human hands more than 3,400 years ago. Back then it was a thriving metropolis of up to 5,000 people, situated on the banks of a Mississippi River tributary called Bayou Macon. Poverty Point was a hub of commerce in the Mississippi River Valley, where men and women traded items that came from hundreds of miles away — all without the conveniences of modern travel.

Fascinating stuff, to be sure. But let’s “dig” a little deeper into the history of Poverty Point, which is open for tours and has an impressive on-site museum and hiking trails.

Poverty Point residents dreamed big — really big.

Poverty Point’s museum includes an awesome collection of artifacts discovered at the site in the decades since it was discovered on the grounds of a former plantation. The bigger draw to the site, however, is the earthworks themselves, which include numerous manmade hills and gigantic, concentric half-circles built from soil, where families once lived. The outermost “ring” measures three-quarters of a mile across, and the tallest hill (or mound) stands 72 feet high above the surrounding plains.

Poverty Point Mound A

Hike the mounds at Poverty Point to get up close and personal with the mysterious ancient history.

Poverty Point Artifacts

Stone and clay artifacts found at Poverty Point.

Poverty Point

Explore the on-site museum.

Poverty Point Ridges

The aerial view of Poverty Point shows the area containing the mounds and ridges.

These folks were expert builders.

Just imagine the work it must have taken to build Poverty Point. Scientists estimate that 53 million cubic feet of soil were moved during construction of the site, which was inhabited for 600 years. What does 53 million cubic feet actually look like? We did the math. A cubic foot of soil weighs between 75 and 100 pounds. So conservatively, we’re talking about 3.9 billion pounds of dirt, which is 1.9 million tons. Which is equivalent to 288,043 African elephants (the world’s largest land animal), or eight of the world’s largest cruise ships combined.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering exactly how Poverty Pointers moved the soil, the answer is: Baskets. Nothing more.

Poverty Point is in an agriculture-rich area, but its inhabitants weren’t farmers.

Poverty Point’s residents were considered “pre-agricultural,” which means that, despite the rich farming environment, they had to live off the land in other ways. Hunting and fishing were both big components of Poverty Point life, as was picking indigenous fruits and nuts.

Some of the strangest objects you’ll find at Poverty Point are so rare, that they’ve come to be known simply as Poverty Point Objects. These are balls of fired clay that were used as cooking stones. Measuring small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand, these PPOs came in many shapes, sizes and colors. You’ll see plenty of those at Poverty Point’s onsite museum.

Oftentimes at archaeological sites, stone tools and pottery are all that are left for archaeologists to study. Wood rots, baskets disintegrate and leather biodegrades, leaving just the hardiest materials behind. But even stone tells a story, and at Poverty Point, there are many. Projectile points (aka “arrowheads”) that come from stones native to present-day Ohio, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas have been found here. 

Even more impressive is the fact that Bayou Macon, where Poverty Point is located, lacks stone itself. When scientists discovered more than 70 tons of rocks there, it became clear the extent to which residents here were involved in trade with other communities. Poverty Point residents were, in effect, social networking thousands of years before Facebook.

Head to Poverty Point to learn about the area, tour the museum, hike the mounds and immerse yourself in the story of this mysterious area in Louisiana.