The typical picture of the hunter-gatherer community is that of a small number of people wandering across the landscape, hunting for food and gathering nuts and berries. They were not complex in their political and social organization and were thought of as very simple people.
But could that traditional viewpoint be completely wrong?
An anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis thinks it may be, especially for hunter-gatherer communities in Southern and Eastern parts of the United States.
T.R. Kidder, Ph.D., professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences, has been studying the Poverty Point site in northeastern Louisiana. The site, near the town of Epps, is one of the largest mound sites in North America. It is also one of the oldest.
It existed from 1,700-1,100 B.C. and the people who lived there were hunter-gatherers. The site is about three square kilometers and features a large earthen mound that is 72 feet tall and 700 feet long and wide. There are concentric ridges around the mound where Kidder theorizes people lived, given the evidence of disposed garbage.
He and his team wanted to know how the site came into being. Through examination of the evidence, two prominent theories arose.
“The first is a conventional model,” Kidder says. “A small group of hunter-gatherers may have come to the area around 1,700 B.C., stayed for a while and left. Then another small group of people came to the site and stayed for a short time. Then another and another. So after 600-700 years, there could be incremental construction of the site by many generations of small groups of people. That would be in keeping with the traditional hunter-gatherer model.”
The alternative explanation, and the one Kidder believes is more accurate, is that the site was constructed over a short period of time by a large population using sophisticated political and social organization.
Kidder and his team spent the summer excavating a dirt platform on one side of the large mound. According to his analysis of dirt layers and lack of erosion, the platform was constructed in a year or less.
“We believe they built this entire platform in a period so brief that there was no erosion of dirt taking place,” Kidder says. “Also, there would have to be a pretty sizeable population to build a mound this size. It would have taken between seven and 10 million 55-pound baskets of dirt just to build the platform we examined. That’s a lot of dirt. Even working all day long, it’s not something 30 people could do in that kind of time frame.”
The building of the mound also suggests a very high level of social and political organization, according to Kidder.
“I find it hard to image that you could keep labor going on that kind of scale without some kind of directed political organization,” he says. “Someone had to figure out a mechanism for organizing the people and directing them.”
Why did they go to all that trouble to build a dirt mound? “It’s very interesting because there is nothing on top of the mound,” Kidder says. “There were no houses, no factories, no garbage from people working. By default, it’s hard not to think of it as being a ceremonial ritual building, though that’s very speculative.”
What Kidder does know is that the level of sophistication it took to construct the mound is not normally associated with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
“I think we are able to demonstrate pretty categorically that this site, or at least the mound itself, which is one of the largest earthen mounds in North America, was built very quickly, presumably by a large number of people in a socially and politically organized fashion,” Kidder says.
“That is really contradictory to the classic textbook definition of hunters and gatherers. For instance, if this mound was built in 1,200 A.D., it would certainly be a big site, but it wouldn’t be that spectacular because, frankly, everyone else was doing it at that point. But the fact that these are hunter-gatherers in 1,700-1,100 B.C. makes it absolutely unique.”
He and Anthony Ortmann, who is pursuing a doctorate in anthropology from Tulane University but is enrolled at Washington University this semester, will present the team’s findings at two meetings this academic year. They will present their paper, “Recent Excavations of Poverty Point Mound A: The ‘Tail’ of Two Mounds,” in early November at the Southeastern Archaeological Society meeting in Columbia, S.C., as well as at the Society for American Archaeology meeting April 26-30 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Kidder hopes to head back to Poverty Point next summer to continue excavating. “This is a society and civilization that is far more complex than we’ve ever given it credit for. These people were before the Maya, Aztec and Inca. They were basically the earliest New World civilization and can be recognized [through fossil evidence] from the Gulf of Mexico to middle Missouri as a coherent material culture of people who were sharing ideas, trading and exchanging over large distances and building monumental architecture.”