Long-distance trade was a hallmark of Poverty Point culture. Stones were moved over long distances, some up to 1,400 miles (2,250 km). Many kinds of materials were traded, including flint, sandstone, quartzite, slate, shale, granite and other coarse igneous rocks, limonite, hematite, magnetite, soapstone, greenstone, crystal quartz, copper, galena, and dozens of others. They came from many areas of the mid-continent, including the Ouachita, Ozark, and Appalachian mountains and the Upper Mississippi Valley and Great Lakes. Even gravels were probably traded, since they were not always available within easy reach of every Poverty Point site.

The Poverty Point trade network reached throughout the Lower Mississippi Valley. Sites, like Claiborne near the Gulf coast, participated. So did sites, like Jaketown, in the northern sections. Many other sites were also involved, especially those close to the larger sites, where trade seems to have been more intensive. However, trade was by no means uniform nor did every site or community in the Lower Mississippi Valley participate. The trade that took place at the Poverty Point site was the most intensive of all.

Rocks were the major trade goods. Some were traded in a natural unaltered condition, but many were circulated as finished or partly finished artifacts.There is very little evidence that other kinds of materials were traded in large quantities. Trade in rocks does make good sense, because rocks furnished the raw material for many tools. Poverty Point people did not make metal tools, and wood, bone, and other perishable substances used to make tools were locally available.

Sources of Poverty Point Materials

Sources of Poverty Point Trade Materials

Some rocks occur naturally in the heartland of Poverty Point culture, but they are limited to deposits of chert gravels and outcrops of crumbly sandstones, quartzites, and ironstones. Although local resources could have furnished (and did furnish for many time periods) all the raw materials people needed, most rocks imported by Poverty Point peoples were of better quality and prettier than local ones. They were obviously highly desired, and the large quantities that were circulated show that demand was high and supply and exchange systems efficient.

Most trade rocks came from outside the land of Poverty Point culture, sometimes from a long way away. It is hard to explain how they got into Poverty Point country, because we have not identified anything of Poverty Point origin in the areas where the rocks originated that might have been traded for them. This lack seems to eliminate simple barter, or at least, barter involving hard, durable items. Perhaps, if peoples living in the lands of the rocks had traded rocks for food, hides, feathers, or other organic materials, then we should expect to find little or no evidence. It is hard to imagine perishable goods being exchanged in the quantities that would surely have been necessary to secure the tons of rocks that wound up in the lower reaches of the Mississippi Valley. Besides, northern groups had their own food, hides, feathers, and the like.

It is doubtful that they would have wanted the same kinds of goods, just because they were from the South. It is also doubtful that Louisiana cooking had the same appeal then as now. With rare exceptions, Poverty Point cooking balls do not occur in rock country.

Were Poverty Point people trading ideas or an ideology (religion) for rocks? Ideas would have left no direct trace either, but we should expect some symbolic artifact, some religious image, perhaps a pot-bellied jasper owl pendant, to have accompanied idea exchange, and so far, none have shown up in the land of the rocks.

Fat-Bellied Owls

We can rule out down-the-line, or neighbor-to-neighbor, trade because the number of imported rocks would have decreased as distance from sources increased, and that is not the case. In fact, there is little imported material at all along the long stretch of river valley lying between the rock sources and the Poverty Point heartland. The largest volume of rocks accumulated at the far end of the line, opposite the sources.

Perhaps, James Ford and Clarence Webb were not too far off base when they suggested that gathering expeditions were sent out from the big Poverty Point site itself. Maybe one or two big ventures were all that were needed to obtain most non-local flints and other materials that outcropped along the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee rivers and their tributaries. Other sources could have been visited more often. It is hard to imagine such long-distance collecting trips being sustained for very long, and maybe, they were not. People may have lived at the Poverty Point site for only a couple of generations. Direct gathering could, however, explain why southern trade goods seem to be lacking in the rock country of the Midwest and why there was such a big gap between rock sources and Poverty Point territory.

But direct gathering does not explain how materials were circulated once they reached the Lower Mississippi Valley. Here, we are certainly talking about some kind of delivery network, some kind of organized trade system. It is not reasonable to assume that each and every site with nonlocal rocks got them independently by sending out gathering expeditions to the rock sources. If every site had gotten its own rocks directly, we would expect each site to have different kinds of rocks, and that is not the case. Although each site does not always have the full array of nonlocal materials, those that are present are always the same kinds that appear everywhere else.

How Poverty Point trade was carried out in the confines of the Lower Mississippi Valley remains as obscure as how it was conducted on its broadest scale. In the last 10 years, considerable research has been done, and while we still do not have definite answers, we have been able to sharpen our views about some aspects of the topic.

In the area within 25 miles of the Poverty Point site, certain kinds of tools were consistently made from certain kinds of nonlocal rock, and very few unworked trade rocks occur. So, the types of tools present at a given site determine the types of trade rocks at the site. For example, plummets were made of hematite, and hoes and Motley points were made of gray northern flint, usually of the Dover variety. So, if a site had a lot of plummets, it had a lot of hematite; if it had a lot of hoes or Motley points, it had a lot of gray northern flint.

How long people lived on a place also must have affected amounts and kinds of trade materials; sites with long occupations probably obtained larger quantities and a wider variety, too. If these were the only influential factors, then we could assume that trade was a simple affair with a simple motive: putting stone resources into the hands of workers and putting the workers to work.

But this view may be too simplistic. To date, only the most abundant trade rocks have been studied, and these were all made into common work tools. We should not be surprised to find them mainly where people worked. Other trade materials, destined to become ornaments, fetishes, or other symbolic objects, may have been traded through different channels or through the same channels in different hands. These materials may be distributed differently from the trade rock used for tools, but they are so uncommon that we really cannot tell. Certainly, the large number of ornaments and symbolic artifacts at the Poverty Point site is in keeping with its great size and cultural significance, but what about symbolic objects from small outlying sites? What do they mean? Do they make that site or its head man or shaman more important than other small sites without such objects? We do not know, and until we find out, the full nature of Poverty Point trade will remain unclear. Only one conclusion is certain: The Poverty Point site was the most important trade center.

Symbolic Objects, Ritual and Religion

Death and burial are solemn and powerful rituals in every society, ancient and modern, but there is very little information about Poverty Point burial practices. This may simply be a sampling problem, since archaeologists have sampled less than one percent of the area of the Poverty Point site. However, so far, no burials have turned up at the Poverty Point site, nor have burials been found at other excavated Poverty Point sites. A suspected cemetery at the Cowpen Slough site near Larto Lake in central Louisiana proved to be much earlier, after it was finally radiocarbon dated.

Burned bone fragments were found in an ash bed beneath Mound B at the Poverty Point site. Most were tiny and unidentifiable, but one was the upper end of a burned human femur (thighbone), proving that at least one person had been cremated and covered by the earthen mound. Two human milk teeth were found in another area of the site, called the "Dock," and a cut out section of jaw and other teeth, drilled for suspension, were discovered in the muck dredged out of Bayou Maçon, the small stream that lies at the foot of the bluff beneath the Poverty Point site. The drilled molars and jaw section were not from burials; they were ornaments, made from the remains of revered ancestors or brave enemies to serve as amulets, charms, medals, or religious objects.

Stone Ornaments

Stone Ornaments: Pendants, Beads, Effigies

How did Poverty Point people dispose of their dead? Through cremation that left little or no remains? By putting bodies in trees or on scaffolds for the scavengers? By simply abandoning corpses in the woods or throwing them in streams? By burying people in individual graves scattered across villages and camping areas or perhaps away from living areas entirely? Or by putting corpses in traditional cemeteries, which simply have not been discovered yet? We just do not know.

This much we can say though. If a lot of people lived and died at the Poverty Point site, then burial of their physical remains would have required a sizeable area. It seems that if cemeteries existed, archaeologists would have discovered them by now, and this makes cremation or some other kind of non-burial disposal practice likely.

Poverty Point people made many unusual objects, but none were more unusual than those having symbolic meaning. No other preceding or contemporary culture in North America had as many ornaments and symbolic objects. Cylindrical, tubular, and disc-shaped stone beads, made mostly of red jasper, predominated, but many other special objects were crafted. Ground stone pendants were made in a variety of geometric and zoomorphic shapes: mainly silhouettes of birds and bird heads, animal claws or talons, feet or paws, and turtle shells. There were even small stone replicas of open clam shells. In-the-round pendants shaped like fat-bellied owls were made and circulated across the Gulf area from western Louisiana to central Florida. A polished tablet from Jaketown bore a carved human face. Copper and galena beads and bangles were worn at Poverty Point and Claiborne sites. Perforated human and animal teeth, cut out sections of human jaws, bone tubes, and bird bills, dredged from the bottom muck of the bayou below the Poverty Point site, suggest that much more ornamentation of perishable materials has disappeared.

It would hardly be appropriate to describe the folks at Poverty Point as gaudily adorned, but compared with their country neighbors in the small villages, they must have appeared quite ornate and "fancy." Because there were so many ornaments at the Poverty Point site, it is conceivable that personal status and social standing were more formalized there than anywhere else.

Hundreds of solid stone objects, such as cones, cylinders, spheres, cubes, trapezoids, buttons, and others, were also made at the Poverty Point site. Because utilitarian functions for these small objects are hard to imagine, they too may have had ornamental or symbolic significance.

Religious and other symbolic purposes may have also been served by stone pipes. Most were shaped like slender ice-cream cones or fat cigars. Other smoking tubes, made of baked clay, have also been found at Poverty Point and other places far from Poverty Point. Among historic Indian peoples of the southeastern United States, smoking was a religious ritual and was not done for pleasure. Pipes and their elaborately decorated pipe stems were considered sacred; they were symbols of tribal identity and were used in intertribal ceremonies: to proclaim war and peace and to honor and salute visiting dignitaries. Might not the Poverty Point pipes have been used similarly?

Female Figurines of Baked Clay
Female Figurines of Baked Clay

Other possible sacred objects may have included the small, hand-molded, clay figurines depicting seated or kneeling women, many of whom appear to be pregnant. Heads were nearly always missing, although whether or not they were snapped off deliberately during ceremonies is unknown. Smaller decorated versions of Poverty Point objects may have had special symbolic value as well.

Everyday artifacts may have been turned into sacred ones under special circumstances. This could explain the deposit of thousands of soapstone vessel fragments buried in an oval pit a little southwest of the big mound at the Poverty Point site. These were not from vessels that had been intentionally broken on the spot and then buried. Only a few pieces from the same vessel were buried in the pit, and no whole vessels could be pieced back together. Some pieces from the deposit fit fragments found on the ridges, up to three-quarters of a mile (1.2 km) away. This deposit might have just as easily been interpreted as an artisan's cache of recyclable material if it had not been for the four small fires that had burned in the corners of the pit. The fires suggest ritual, and the deposit probably represents some kind of offering. Other deposits of soapstone vessels, both whole and broken, were found at the Claiborne site on the Gulf coast.

Other ordinary objects that may have been given special religious significance include plummets and bannerstones bearing engravings of various animals. The engravings include the so-called "Fox-Man" and "Long-Tail" designs, as well as duck foot and bird figures. The "Fox-Man" design is probably a stylized horned owl, rather than a man with fox head or headdress, and the "Long-Tail" may represent an opossum. The really interesting thing about these engravings, as well as all the other zoomorphic objects at Poverty Point, is that the animals they represent are all important in the myths and lore of historic Southeastern Indians. They are usually mentioned in connection with death, witchcraft, early warning, news bringing, and origin stories.

Stone Engravings

Stone Engravings with Symbolic Significance

The unique abilities possessed by these animals--flight, night vision, and alertness--were awe-inspiring. It is easy to see how people living as close to nature as did Native Americans came to respect and revere them. These similarities do not mean that Poverty Point people and historic tribes had the same religion, but it does make me wonder if they might have shared similar world views, world views carried on by oral tradition for thousands of years.

If these images really are religious symbols, then we ought to think of Poverty Point religion as animistic. Animism is a belief system that sees the world as being full of spirits and power. Such a world can be manipulated by shamans (or medicine men or women) and witches and altered by prayers, fetishes, amulets, and charms. Although animism lacks the formal organization of religions historically associated with other monument-building societies, it was not any less capable of explaining the great mysteries or of providing direction and meaning for its followers. Its rituals and ceremonies were just as exciting and fearsome as those of more formalized religions, perhaps even more so since the spirit world was so constantly close at hand.

There is little doubt that religion was the most powerful and persuasive force in Poverty Point society. The uncommonly large number of fetishes and charms at Poverty Point indicates that a great deal of power was concentrated there, and that power and those who were able to control and direct it were undoubtedly responsible, in whole or part, for the great constructions and other remarkable achievements.