Poverty Point Culture

Poverty Point Culture Poverty Point sites in Louisiana and western Mississippi exhibit the first major residential settlements and monumental earthworks in the United States. Although the Poverty Point culture is not well understood in terms of social organization, it was involved in the transportation of nonlocal raw materials (for example, shell, stone, and copper) from throughout the eastern United States into the lower Mississippi River Valley to selected sites where the materials were worked into finished products and then traded. While specific information on Poverty Point subsistence, trade mechanisms, and other cultural aspects is still speculative, the sites nevertheless exhibit specific material culture, such as baked clay objects, magnetite plummets, steatite bowls, red-jasper lapidary work, fiber-tempered pottery, and microlithic stone tools. By around 500 B.C., the Poverty Point culture was replaced by the Tchula/Tchefuncte Early Woodland culture, which existed in western Tennessee, Louisiana, southern Arkansas, western Mississippi, and coastal Alabama. The sites of this lower Mississippi River Valley culture were small village settlements.

Subsistence continued to consist of intensive collecting of wild plants and animals, as with the preceding Poverty Point culture, but for the first time quantities of pottery were produced. There appears to be a de-emphasis on long-distance trade and manufacture of lithic artwork noted in the earlier Poverty Point culture. The Tchula/Tchefuncte Early Woodland culture appears to have coexisted with some Middle Woodland cultures in the lower Mississippi River Valley. The pottery of this period appears to have been relatively crude and undecorated. The pottery is distinctive in being thick, poorly fired and covered on the inside and outside by cord marking.

This cord marking was probably the result of construction techniques in which clay was formed around a basket or bag before firing. Not all Early Woodland sites had pottery and some researchers suggest that it was used only for part of the year, perhaps during the processing of acorns or other nuts for their oil. During this time period burials became even more elaborate with increased inclusion of status artifacts. Some of these exotic artifacts show clear evidence of influence and contact with even more elaborate and complex cultural groups to the south. In these areas, clearly complex and stratified societies, probably with full time chiefs and priests, had developed and were interacting with many other widely distributed groups across North America. Exchange of exotic desirable goods such as copper, silver, obsidian, sea shells and exotic, often colourful, cherts seems to have been the main goal of this interaction sphere but, undoubtedly, the exchange of ideas was also important in stimulating further development.

Whether foods or furs for clothing was also exchanged is unknown at this time. The main characteristic, besides elaboration of burial practices, that distinguished the Early and Middle Woodland from Late Archaic traditions, was the gradual intensification of local and interregional exchange of exotic materials. For many years archeologists have regarded as classic those Middle Woodland sites with elaborate ceremonial earthworks that contained the burial mound graves of elite individuals buried with exotic mortuary gifts obtained through an extensive trade network covering most of the eastern United States. Because of the similarity of earthworks and burial goods found at widely scattered sites in the Southeast and the area north of the Ohio River, it was assumed that a cultural continuity-sometimes referred to as the Hopewellian Interaction Sphere-existed throughout much of the eastern United States. At least some nonorganic trade items can be identified from the study of the burial mounds of the Middle Woodland. To this trade, the Middle Woodland territories of the Southeast appear to have provided mica, quartz crystals, and chlorite from the Carolinas, and a variety of marine shells, as well as shark and alligator teeth, from the Florida Gulf Coast.

In exchange, the Middle Woodland clans of the Southeast received galena from Missouri, flint from Illinois, grizzly bear teeth, obsidian and chalcedony from the Rockies, and copper from the Great Lakes. Standardization of style for the finished artifacts used in this trade may be attributed to a relatively small number of clan leaders controlling the exchange system and developing their own symbolic artifact language of what trade goods constituted a reciprocal exchange between clans. The Middle Woodland (200 – 300 B.C. to A.D. 700 – 900) period is distinguished from the Early Woodland only in few, relatively minor, aspects. These relate to some aspects of the chipped lithic tool inventory (i.e.

changes in projectile point types) and the addition of decoration of increasing elaboration to the pottery. Pottery is found on a greater percentage of sites so may have become more widely used in the seasonal round. There is some evidence of different cultural groups but these differences appear mostly as style differences in pottery and may be more a result of the limited state of knowledge for this time period. These different traditions will be described in greater detail below. During the Middle Woodland period, burial ceremonialism appears to have reached its peak.

It was at this time that the most exotic items were included in burials and most of the known burial mounds were constructed. These include the Serpent Mound at Rice Lake, a burial mound which was shaped like a giant snake, and the mounds at Rainy River. Much of the elaboration in mortuary ceremonialism is attributed to contact with the Hopewellian people in the Ohio Valley. This influence appears to end around A.D. 250 and after this time burial ceremonialism appears to decrease.

Around A.D. 500, the archeological record reveals a sharp decline in the construction of Middle Woodland burial mounds in the Hopewellian core area of the Ohio River drainage. The decline in the construction of burial mounds is accompanied by disruption of the long-distance trade in exotic materials and interregional art styles. Traditionally, archeologists have viewed the Late Woodland (ca. A.D. 500 – 1000) as a time of cultural poverty.

Late Woodland settlements, with the exception of sites along the Florida Gulf Coast, tended to be small when compared with Middle Woodland sites. Based on our present-day perspective, few outstanding works of prehistoric art or architecture can be attributed to this time period. Careful analysis, however, shows that, throughout the Southeast, the Late Woodland was a very dynamic period. Bow-and-arrow technology, allowing for increased hunting efficiency, became widespread. New varieties of maize, beans, and squash were introduced or gained economic importance at this time, which greatly supplemented existing native seed and root plants. Finally, although settlement size was small, there was a marked increase in the numbers of Late Woodland sites over Middle Woodland sites, indicating a population increase.

These factors tend to give a view of the Late Woodland period as an expansive period, not one of a cultural collapse. The reasons for possible cultural degradations at the end of the Middle Woodland and the subsequent emergence of the Late Woodland are poorly understood. There are several possible explanations. The first is that populations increased beyond the point of carrying capacity of the land, and, as the trade system broke down, clans resorted to raiding rather than trading with other territories to acquire important resources. A second possibility is that a rapid replacement of the Late Archaic spear and atlatl with the newer bow-and-arrow technology quickly decimated the large game animals, interrupting the hunting component of food procurement and resulting in settlements breaking down into smaller units to subsist on local resources. This ended long distance trade and the need for elite social units.

A third possible reason is that colder climate conditions about A.D. 400 might have affected yields of gathered foods, such as nuts or starchy seeds, thereby disrupting the trade networks. A fourth and possibly interrelated reason is that intensified horticulture became so successful that increased agricultural production may have reduced variation in food resource availability between differing areas. This reliance on horticulture, involving only a few types of plants, would have carried with it a risk where variations in rainfall or climate could cause famine Anthropology.

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