In the 1950s and 1960s, when archaeologists were starting to realize just how large and imposing the Poverty Point site really was, they assumed that a large, permanently settled, and complex society was responsible for it. Prevailing theory held that large complex societies were agricultural. So, despite its early age and simple tools, Poverty Point people were assumed to have been farmers. Because other peoples of the same age depended on hunting and gathering, Poverty Point society was assumed to be transitional: one of the first groups in eastern North America to take up farming, corn farming.
At the time, no plant remains had been found at Poverty Point. Consequently, it was impossible to tell if Poverty Point people had farmed, or if they had made a living some other way, such as by intensively gathering native wild plants or by hunting and gathering along the especially bountiful narrow environmental seams where uplands joined the Mississippi floodplain.We still do not have much information about foods eaten by Poverty Point peoples, but we have enough to be sure about one thing. Poverty Point peoples were not corn farmers. They were hunter-gatherers. We are only beginning to find out what they ate. We have more information about meats than plants, because bones are more resistant to decay through time and are more easily recovered by standard excavation methods.
From the Claiborne site on the Gulf to inland sites up the valley, like Poverty Point and Copes, major meat sources included fish, reptiles, small and large mammals, and birds. Freshwater fish were the main source of meat everywhere. They included gar, bowfin, catfish, gaspergou, bass, sunfish, and other species. Brackish water clams were collected at Claiborne and nearby coastal sites, but inland groups did not utilize river mussels at all. Oysters were eaten at the Cedarland site, near Claiborne, but apparently nowhere else. Turtles were caught, especially snapping, mud-musk, red-eared, and soft-shelled species. Water snakes, rat/king snakes, and racers were eaten; so were alligators and frogs.
Fish, a staple food for Poverty Point people
Next to fish, venison was the most important meat, but small mammals, such as cottontail and swamp rabbits, gray and fox squirrels, raccoons, opossums, and a few others also contributed. Waterfowl and a few upland birds made up a minor part of the diet; they included ducks and geese, coots, herons, egrets, pelicans, Sandhill cranes, turkeys, crows, and others.
Plants undoubtedly provided the main part of Poverty Point food, but because remains are rarely preserved, we have a limited view of their contribution. Nuts predominate and include hickory nuts, pecans, acorns, and walnuts. Their relative importance may be inflated because they have hard shells, which were often burned in campfires. Charred nut shells are more readily preserved than uncharred plant remains, but even if exaggerated, the importance of nuts to Poverty Point peoples is undeniable. Other identified plant remains include persimmons, wild grapes, wild beans, hackberries and seeds from honey locust, goosefoot, knotweed, and doveweed.
Squash seeds, rinds, and stems have been found in small quantities at the Copes site, but this plant may have provided containers rather than food. There is no certainty that this variety was even cultivated, but even if it was and had been used for food, it was not very important.
These remains do not form a complete list of Poverty Point table fare. Food remains have only been recovered from a handful of sites. Differences in archaeological techniques and natural preservation conditions from site to site complicate direct comparisons and make it difficult to say which foods were preferred and how much they contributed to diets. One thing is certain: Poverty Point peoples throughout the Lower Mississippi Valley did not eat the same kinds of foods in the same proportions.
The most difficult problem with subsistence is figuring out just how the large Poverty Point site population, which may have numbered in the hundreds or possibly thousands, existed by simple hunting and gathering. This problem lessens when one begins to add up the incredible food richness of the land around Poverty Point. The Poverty Point site was located in an environment where naturally abundant plants and animals were even more bountiful and varied.
Throwing a javelin with an atlatl; close-up shows atlatl hook on spear
Recently archaeologists have found that the site's inhabitants were primarily eating acorns, hickory nuts, fish, and turtle, in that order. The great use of aquatic species and acorns at the Poverty Point site suggests that most of Poverty Point's foods came from an environment that included slow-moving or motionless water. Archaeologists have recently found evidence that a large permanent or seasonal lake lay alongside the Poverty Point site. No lake is there today, only woods and farmland. Such overflow lakes, located near the Mississippi River and high ground, are the most productive natural food sources in the generally productive Mississippi "delta" environment.
Much more information is needed before we can fully describe Poverty Point subsistence, locally and regionally, but we can draw a few general conclusions. We know that Poverty Point groups throughout the Mississippi Valley were hunter-gatherers, not farmers. No matter how you figure it, the group who lived at the Poverty Point site not only met its daily food needs but also supplied enough extra to support an unparalleled building program.
We know that Poverty Point peoples from different sections of the Lower Mississippi Valley ate different kinds of foods or similar foods in different combinations. Sometimes people living only a few miles apart did, too. These differences are probably due to differences in available foods, and that, in turn, was partly dependent on nature and partly on human factors, such as food preferences and what season of the year that exploitation took place.
Finally, we know that Poverty Point subsistence generally emphasized aquatic resources, especially fish, which is logical considering the location of sites on streams and lakes down in the Mississippi swampland and along the bluffs bordering the swampland. Without the steady and superabundant supply of fish, none of the remarkable accomplishments at the Poverty Point site would have been possible.
Hunters used spears; bows and arrows were unknown. Spears were tipped with a variety of stone points. Some points, like the ones illustrated below, were exclusive Poverty Point styles, but many were forms which had been made for hundreds and even thousands of years before.Spears were thrown with atlatls, or spear-throwers, which gave added distance and power. Shaped like oversized crochet needles, atlatls were held in the throwing hand with the hooked end inserted into a shallow socket in the butt of the spear. Hurled with a smooth, gliding motion, the spear was cast toward the target while the atlatl remained in the hand.
Projectile Points; Motley, Epps, Pontchartrain. Atlatl Weights: Gorgets, and Tablets
Atlatl hooks were sometimes made of carved antler, and polished stone weights were attached to the atlatl shaft. The weights helped to transfer the forces of the throwing motion to the spear in flight. Atlatl weights were made in a variety of sizes and shapes, including rectangular, diamond, oval, boat-shaped bars, and a host of unusual forms. Some were quite elaborate with shiny finishes and engraved decorations. Many broken weights have repair holes along the edges.
The hunters and fishermen also used plummets. These objects were ground from heavy lumps of magnetite, hematite, limonite, and occasionally other stones. Shaped like plumb bobs or big teardrops, plummets often had encircling grooves or holes drilled in the small end to aid in attachment. Some archaeologists consider plummets to be bola weights, but they were more likely weights for cast and gill fishing nets.
Other kinds of hunting devices, such as deadfalls, snares, and traps, were probably used by Poverty Point hunters, but because they were made of perishable wood, their use can only be inferred from the presence of bones of nocturnal animals among food remains. The presence of fishbones, ranging from tiny minnows to giant gar, suggests that fishermen used some technique, such as poisoning or muddying, for mass catches.
Other kinds of tools undoubtedly were used to obtain food, but we cannot identify with certainty which of the many other chipped and ground artifacts may have been used. Gathering plant foods, such as nuts, acorns, seeds, fruits, berries, greens, and vegetables, probably did not require any tools. Digging edible roots would have required some sort of tool, but it need not have been anything other than a convenient pointed stick. Stone hoes have been found at several Poverty Point villages. Some of these objects have coatings which look like melted glass or thick shellac. The coatings are called sickle-sheen and formed when hoes chopped through sod.
Foods were prepared with a variety of implements. Animals were butchered with heavy chipped stone bifaces (or cleavers) and sharp flakes or blades (knives). Battered rocks, pitted stones, and mortars served to pound nuts, acorns, and seeds into flour and oil.
Food was cooked in open hearths and earth ovens. The earth oven was an ingenious Poverty Point invention. A hole was dug in the ground, hot "clay balls" were packed around the food, and the pit was covered. Ovens efficiently regulated heat and conserved energy. "Clay balls" were hand-molded; fingers, palms, and sometimes tools were used to fashion dozens of different styles. Although they are often referred to as "clay balls," they are not really balls, and they are made of silt, not clay. These objects are distinguishing hallmarks of Poverty Point culture. They are so common that archaeologists call them Poverty Point objects.
Some archaeologists have cooked in earth ovens, made like those at Poverty Point. They found, if they always put the same number of Poverty Point objects in the oven every time they cooked, that the shapes (cylindrical, biconical, spheriodial, etc.) controlled how hot the pit got and how long it stayed hot. Using different shaped objects was apparently the cooks' means of regulating cooking temperature, just like setting the time and power level in modern microwave ovens.
Poverty Point Objects
Poverty Point peoples had a variety of vessels for cooking, storage, and simple containment. They used pots and bowls made of stone and baked clay. Stone vessels were chiseled out of soapstone (a dense soft rock) and sandstone at the rock quarries. Tons of soapstone were imported to the Poverty Point site from quarries in northern Georgia and Alabama. Most stone vessels were plain, but a few had decorations and small handles. One notable soapstone fragment was decorated with a bas-relief of a bird and another with a panther. Holes drilled along the edges of some fragments show that cracked vessels were often repaired by lacing them back together. Broken pieces also were made into beads, pendants, and, sometimes, plummets.
Poverty Point clay vessels mark the first appearance of pottery in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Archaeologists accord great historical significance to this event. James Ford argued that Poverty Point pottery making derived from Indians in South or Central America and was passed on through people living along the Atlantic and eastern Gulf coasts of North America. Ned Jenkins suggested that knowledge of pottery came from Alabama as a spin-off of soapstone trade. Recent excavations at the Poverty Point site suggest thatPoverty Point people started designing pottery independently of the other southern centers of early pottery. This conclusion is based on new archaeological evidence showing that some Poverty Point pottery was made before soapstone containers and eastern-style pottery arrived at the site. There are site-to-site differences in Poverty Point pottery. Some pottery contains plant fibers, like early ceramics in other parts of the South. Some contains sand and grit, bone particles, concretions, and/or hard lumps of clay; some contains no additions or impurities. It is just pure clay or löess (a fine, silty, wind-deposited sediment). Some archaeologists think sand, bone, and other things were intentionally added to the wet clay as temper, additives designed to prevent breaking when pots were fired. Other archaeologists suspect the included particles are natural and just happened to be in the dirt selected to make the pottery. If the inclusions were natural, it suggests that potters were merely using the handiest supply of suitable material, no matter what it contained. Such a practice seems to be in keeping with the first groping efforts of a new technology. Most Poverty Point pottery was plain, but decorations sometimes were made by lightly pressing objects or fingernails into the damp clay, by rocking simple tools back and forth, and by pinching or incising patterns into the surface. Many other tools were used in the everyday tasks of building houses, doing odd jobs, and making other tools. We know Poverty Point peoples used stone tools for these jobs and probably also used wood, bone and antler ones, as well. Most of these were very similar to those used by earlier Archaic people. Hammerstones, whetstones, polishers, and other tools required little or no preparation, beyond selecting a suitable rock. Ground Stone Tools Fabricated tools include gouges, adzes, axes, and drills. These objects were chipped from large pieces of gravel or big flakes. The working edges of these tools often bear polish or tiny scratches, which confirm they were used for chopping, carving, digging, and drilling. Some of these items, especially celts and adzes (cutting tools with the blades set at right angles to the handles), have counterparts made of ground and polished stone. These ground tools were made by chipping, battering, grinding, and polishing in combination or singly. Another group of chipped stone artifacts is quite abundant at the Poverty Point and Jaketown sites and occurs in respectable numbers at other Poverty Point villages. These curious objects are called microliths (meaning small stones), and the most common type is a Jaketown perforator. Perforators are made from flakes and blades (specialized flakes at least twice as long as they are wide with parallel sides); one end is expanded and the other is pointed. They look like small car keys. They were first presumed to be drills or punches, but when modern experiments showed that they could be made by whittling antler, bone, and even wood, they came to be regarded as worn-out scrapers. However, archaeologist Sam Brookes found the end of a perforator lodged in the bottom of an unfinished hole in a stone tablet, suggesting that the original assumption was correct.