Prehistoric social and political organization is difficult for archaeologists to reconstruct, because it consisted of rules and customs and not artifacts. Still, we have to use artifacts, or rather, artifact patterns, in order to reconstruct organization. Patterns are not only indirect indicators of organization, they are often hard to recognize because they have been disturbed by the passage of time. Nevertheless, socio-political organization is an important archaeological consideration because it gave structure to society and shaped people's lives and actions. Just as religion explained people's relations with the great mysteries, socio-political organization defined and explained people's relations with each other: kith and kin, leader and led, and friend and foe.
Attempts to reconstruct social and political organization have been mainly limited to the Poverty Point site and the Yazoo Basin around the Jaketown site. The large earthworks and huge quantities of trade materials at the Poverty Point site led archaeologists to assume that it was a sophisticated place and that the society that operated there was a complex one. Its age and technology created minor problems, which were resolved by assuming that Poverty Point represented a transitional stage between earlier simple cultures and later more advanced ones.
These ideas had their roots in evolutionary thinking. Evolutionary thinking held that culture progressed slowly, steadily, and surely; from simpler to more complex forms. Also important was the presumption that prehistoric peoples had the same kinds of socio-political organization as certain groups alive today. Nobody seriously considered the possibility that some kinds of prehistoric groups and their organizational bases might have disappeared without leaving counterparts in the twentieth century. Archaeologists now recognize that the community at and around the Poverty Point site was more sophisticated than most modern hunter-gatherer societies, which make poor comparisons anyway, because they have all been changed by exposure to the industrialized world. We cannot point to a single modern-day hunter-gatherer society and say that is what Poverty Point society was like. The precise kind of socio-political organization that existed at Poverty Point may have happened only once and only there. There is no necessary reason why something like it would have reappeared once the particular circumstances and personalities responsible for it disappeared.
Poverty Point organization does not seem so out-of-time and out-of-place now that we realize that mound building with all its organizational dimensions had been around for two or three thousand years before the earthworks at Poverty Point were ever built. None of these earlier Archaic mound-building societies seems as large or as complex as Poverty Point society, although I believe that if there had not been a Poverty Point site, we would be hard pressed to detect much difference between other Archaic and Poverty Point societies.
There are two important things to remember. One, Poverty Point did not just spring from emptiness. It had precedents. Two, it is the Poverty Point site that makes Poverty Point culture so unusual. The Jaketown community, for instance, was not as socially and politically elaborate as the one at Poverty Point. There was just no other place like Poverty Point.
What then can we say about Poverty Point socio-political organization? We can be reasonably certain that kinship was the dominant factor that held people together. Poverty Point communities were basically groups of kinfolks joined by blood and marriage ties. Social relationships were based on familiarity, and status was determined by personal abilities, character, and birthright.
It is at the Poverty Point site where we detect a level of organization that seems to exceed that which is possible through simple kinship. It has become increasingly apparent that Poverty Point's earthworks were built quickly, and this suggests strong leadership.
Whether construction had been carried out by permanent residents or temporary visitors drawn to Poverty Point to trade, there were still building plans to draw up, labor to organize and supervise, food to provide while the work was going on, and a large camp to run.
Overarching all this was the motivation for, and overall direction of, construction. Building the Poverty Point mounds and ridges was a huge undertaking. Millions of hours of labor were invested. The earthworks were not haphazard piles of dirt but carefully laid-out features, constructed according to a master design no matter how rough the terrain along their path. The point is that somebody decided to build the earthworks. Somebody planned them. Somebody convinced people to work on them. It was this somebody (leadership) and the circumstances that spawned such leadership that made Poverty Point different from usual kinship-based societies. The cause must have been just and good and the leadership kind and generous, because there was nothing other than strength of personality and weight of public opinion to compel people to work on a massive project that went so far beyond their individual needs. Perhaps, this is what Poverty Point is all about anyway; a monument to a beloved leader and a bold testament to a belief system.
The preceding view of Poverty Point culture is a patchwork of facts, hypotheses, guesses, and speculations. Many equally sound interpretations can be drawn from the same data. This is the nature of archaeology. Trying to describe an extinct culture, especially its social and political organization and its religion by means of artifacts is not an exact science, but it is a rewarding and meaningful one.
This little study is not about agreements or disagreements over interpretations. It is about responsibility, a responsibility incumbent on each of us to understand as much as we possibly can about humanity, past and present. The quality of our lives is owed directly to the people who walked the land before us. The people responsible for Poverty Point culture are gone, but their magnificent achievements and contributions to the saga of human development stand proudly before us today. Theirs is a legacy worth understanding and protecting.
Broyles, Bettye J. and Clarence H. Webb (editors)
1970 The Poverty Point Culture. Bulletin No. 12. Southeastern Archaeological Conference, Morgantown, West Virginia.
Byrd, Kathleen M. (editor)
1986 Recent Research at the Poverty Point Site. Louisiana Archaeology
No. 13. Louisiana Archaeological Society, Lafayette.
1991 The Poverty Point Culture, Local Manifestations, Subsistence Practices, and Trade Networks. Geoscience & Man Vol. 29. Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge.
Ford, James A.
1955 The Puzzle of Poverty Point. Natural History 64(9):466-472.
Ford, James A. and Clarence H. Webb
1956 Poverty Point, a Late Archaic Site in Louisiana. Anthropological Papers Vol. 46, Pt. 1. American Museum of Natural History, New York.
Gibson, Jon L.
1987 The Poverty Point Earthworks Reconsidered. Mississippi Archaeology 22(2):14-31.
Gibson, Jon L. (editor)
1980 Caddoan and Poverty Point Archaeology: Essays in Honor of Clarence Hungerford Webb. Louisiana Archaeology 6 for 1979. Louisiana Archaeological Society, Lafayette.
1994 Exchange in the Lower Mississippi Valley and Contiguous Areas at 1100 B.C. Louisiana Archaeology No. 17 for 1990. Louisiana Archaeological Society, Lafayette.
Jackson, H. Edwin
1991 The Trade Fair in Hunter-Gatherer Interaction: The Role of Intersocietal Trade in the Evolution
of Poverty Point Culture. In Between Bands and States, edited by Susan A. Gregg, pp. 265-286. Occasional Paper No. 9. Center for Archaeological Investigations. Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.
Webb, Clarence H.
1968 The Extent and Content of Poverty Point Culture. American Antiquity 33:297-321.
1977 The Poverty Point Culture. Geoscience & Man Vol. 17. Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. (2nd edition, revised, published in 1982).
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