Saturday, November 11, 2006

Is 1491 a more accurate version of American history prior to the arrival of Columbus?

If any of you who are interested in American history before the cataclysmic arrival of Columbus in 1492 hasn’t already done so, I’d highly suggest reading 1491 by Charles Mann. It is a thought-provoking book based on up-to-date anthropological and archeological evidence of what the Americas really looked like before the European arrival and the mass assault on the indigenous peoples who welcomed him began.

In what little free time I have these days, I’ve been reading a couple of articles* about Poverty Point**, an archeological site in northeastern Louisiana. I’d heard of Cahokia in western Illinois (in what’s now East St. Louis) and Aztalan in Wisconsin, but I hadn’t heard of this massive site in Louisiana until now.

The site was first reported in 1873 by archeologist Samuel Lockett. But its unusual nature didn’t become evident until excavations were conducted by the American Museum of Natural History in the 1950s. An examination of an aerial photograph revealed that Poverty Point was an earthen enclosure built on such a huge scale that it couldn’t be recognized from the ground.

Carbon dating has placed the age of the main site at about 1700 BC. Villages apparently interconnected by waterways branching off the Mississippi River are thought to have contained permanent residences and these sites often contained artificial earthen mounds and C-shaped embankments which likely contained the houses of the residents. (The only house pattern so far discovered is small and circular, about 13-15 feet or 4-4.6 m in diameter.) Mounds were often dome-shaped, but at least two mounds at the main Poverty Point site were in the shape of flying birds. Excavations have not determined how the mounds were used.

The geometric layout of Poverty Point suggests that the site was built according to a master plan that indicates the home of a large resident population and a magnet for visitors and traders. In addition to the concentric C-shaped residential embankments, Poverty Point contains a large plaza, a flat open area of about 37 acres. On one side of the plaza some unusually large and deep pits were discovered that are thought to have contained huge posts as calendar markers to mark equinoxes and solstices.

There are several mounds, the largest of which represents a flying bird and stands 70 feet (21 m) high. While the majority of Poverty Point’s inhabitants lived on the embankments in the central enclosure, there’s evidence that people also lived and worked outside the enclosure perhaps as much as up to 25 miles distant.

Among the artifacts so far discovered at the site are simple pottery, stone vessels, and chipped stone and polished stone tools. Polished stone ornaments such as beads, pendants, and animal figurines are also characteristic. Among the more interesting of the artifacts are balls made from silt fashioned in dozens of different styles that were used for cooking. Archeologists have tried cooking in earth ovens made like those at Poverty Point. Using different shaped balls or objects was apparently the ancient cook’s way of regulating cooking temperature, just like setting time and power level on a modern microwave oven. These types of implements appeared to have been made up until about 1350 BC.

Obviously, reading about the Poverty Point site and its similarities to Cahokia and Aztalan (not to mention sites in Mesoamerica) made me realize that perhaps Mann’s view of the ancient Americas as consisting of large settlements, even metropolises, containing huge ceremonial centers and connected by a large network of terrestrial and aquatic trade routes is closer to the real scenario than that which we’re normally taught in high school and even college textbooks of the noble savage.

Gone are the days of seeing Native America as a simple, largely disconnected hodgepodge of hunter-gatherer temporary villages!

* Info from Gibson, J. (1996) Poverty Point, A Terminal Archaic Culture of the Lower Mississippi Valley, 2nd edition by the (Louisiana) Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism.

** Named for a plantation that once occupied the site.

For yet more info on Poverty Point, see the Moundbuilders/Ancient Southwest link on the sidebar.

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