Friday, March 17, 2017

Is Poverty Point, Louisiana Evidence Of Complex Social Organization In Hunter-Gathers?

A short partially animated video by the maker of PhD Comics makes the case that Poverty Point, Louisiana is evidence of a far more sophisticated social organization in hunter-gatherers from 1200 BCE than is commonly assumed. 

Given the surprising short timeline of construction of the largest earth mound there (60-90 days which would have taken 1000 laborers plus supporters), I'm inclined to think that, like the pre-Neolithic temples of the Fertile Crescent like Göbekli Tepe, this may have been a periodic meet-up event of an extended clan of tribes a bit like a modern Olympics or extended family reunion. And, while individual mounds may have been built in one go, the entire cluster of mounds may have been built over the course of multiple generations taking centuries. The Wikipedia account of the Anatolian site below is strikingly similar to the one in the video about Poverty Point:
While the site formally belongs to the earliest Neolithic (PPNA), up to now no traces of domesticated plants or animals have been found. The inhabitants are assumed to have been hunters and gatherers who nevertheless lived in villages for at least part of the year. So far, very little evidence for residential use has been found. Through the radiocarbon method, the end of Layer III can be fixed at about 9000 BCE (see above) but it is believed that the elevated location may have functioned as a spiritual center by 11,000 BCE or even earlier, essentially at the very end of the Pleistocene
The surviving structures, then, not only predate pottery, metallurgy, and the invention of writing or the wheel, they were built before the so-called Neolithic Revolution, i.e., the beginning of agriculture and animal husbandry around 9000 BCE. But the construction of Göbekli Tepe implies organization of an advanced order not hitherto associated with Paleolithic, PPNA, or PPNB societies. 
Archaeologists estimate that up to 500 persons were required to extract the heavy pillars from local quarries and move them 100–500 meters (330–1,640 ft) to the site. The pillars weigh 10–20 metric tons (10–20 long tons; 11–22 short tons), with one still in the quarry weighing 50 tons. It has been suggested that an elite class of religious leaders supervised the work and later controlled whatever ceremonies took place. If so, this would be the oldest known evidence for a priestly caste—much earlier than such social distinctions developed elsewhere in the Near East.
Another possibility, but not really consistent with the lack of evidence of settlement and short time frame of construction locally, at least, would have been a somewhat sedentary lifestyle supported by fishing and proto-farming. But, fishing and proto-farming in the Mississippi Delta era could still have given rise to a larger community population that was relatively localized which would make mobilization of a community to build this monument more feasible. Indeed, it may have even been a Chalcolithic technology civilization. According to articles in Science which I summarized in a 2012 post at this site:
A little more than a thousand years later (flourishing 1600 BCE to 1000 BCE), however, a civilization that appears to be derived from this first wave of mound builders appears at Poverty Point, which is within a day's walk of the earlier sites in Louisiana. This urban center is much larger in scale, perhaps comparable to a medium sized archaic era Greek city state, and shows clear signs of a trade network that extends as far as Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the North and the Ozarks in the West. It used copper and engaged in fine stoneworking. Its trade network may have even extended farther still. The way that its structures are aligned with solstices and equinoxes, its burial practices, its pottery, and the arrangement of structures in the complex, appear to strongly echo and to probably be antecedent to the Mesoamerican civilizations of the Olmecs (from ca. 1200 BCE) . . .
Maize (and hence agriculture) had reached the American Southwest by about 2100 BCE via a highland route from a pre-Olmec civilization in Mexico (see also here). Domesticated pumpkins and gourds were present in Kentucky ca. 3000 BCE, and were independently domesticated in Northeast Mexico and the eastern United States. Given this data, I'm skeptical that Poverty Point was really, as the investigator in the video claims, a hunter-gatherer society. But, there are authoritative investigators of the site who have reached that conclusion.

Maize only reached the Eastern United States around 200 BCE, but the Eastern Agricultural Complex had independently domesticated other plants starting around 1800 BCE. These crops included squash (Cucurbita pepo var. ozarkana), little barley (Hordeum pusillum), goosefoot or lambsquarters (Chenopodium berlandieri), erect knotweed (Polygonum erectum), maygrass (Phalaris caroliniana), sumpweed or marsh elder (Iva annua), and sunflower (Helianthus annuus).
The plants are often divided into "oily" or "starchy" categories. Sunflower and sumpweed have edible seeds rich in oil. Erect knotweed and goosefoot, a leafy vegetable, are starches, as are maygrass and little barley, both of which are grasses that yield grains that may be ground to make flour.
It is plausible to me that non-specialist archaeologists at these sites may not have recognized Eastern Agricultural Complex crops as domesticated plants rather than as wild gathered crops, since most of the EAC crops were later replaced by the maize-bean-squash triad developed in Mexico. 

Also, cooking in stone ovens seems inconsistent with a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

It is notable that the construction of the Poverty Point mound is contemporaneous with the climate event that in Europe and the Near East led to a historical phenomena known as Bronze Age collapse. Perhaps the effects of that climate event in the Mississippi Delta area at the time spurred a fresh wave of religious devotion to assuage the gods.

Another reason to have particular interest is Poverty Point is that like Göbekli Tepe, in the Fertile Crescent, this seems to have been the point of genesis of a cultural movement that may be ancestral to a wave of agricultural development and organized civilization that spanned most of one continent and a healthy part of another in both cases. (Links to posts on subsequent possibly related civilizations in North America can be found in this post.)

In the chicken and egg problem of which came first, large scale organized religion, or modern civilization, both of these sites argue in favor of a religion first hypothesis.


DDeden said...

You managed to write the whole article without mentioning social trade/exchange relations. I think they were hugely important, being the difference between nonymous (personally known) exchanges of small H&G bands and later anonymous impersonal trade/taxes/tithes which required priestly-government hierarchies.

(nonymous should be a word, but I didn't check)

andrew said...

I've got some quotes about trade exchanges from a prior discussion in there noting more generally the seeming disparity between the claims in the video and those from other sources. I don't know anything about the trade exchange in the Anatolian case.