The most famous ancient American Indian earthen structure in the United States is Cahokia Mounds near Collinsville, Illinois. Larger then London was in AD 1250, Cahokia is still a mysterious, ancient indigenous city that fills the imagination with the accomplished Mississipians, incredible builders who constructed everything from homes to grand public works. Cahokia Mounds have garnered tons of scientific research and public interest, with National Geographic writing a feature article on the site earlier this year, and every new site that’s found is, invariably, compared to Cahokia, as Indian Country Today Media Network reported on at the end of last year.
For all the press that Cahokia gets, the state with the most varied, plentiful, and ancient Native American earthen mounds in North America is Louisiana. Thanks to the Louisiana Ancient Mound Heritage Area and Trails iniative, created through the state’s Division of Archaeology and Office of Cultural Development, these incredible examples of ancient earthen architecture have been knitted together into four user-friendly, self-guided tours. The Louisiana Ancient Mounds Driving Trail, which includes earthen structures that are older then both Stonehenge and the Mayan Pyramids, is a great way to explore the beautiful, and beguiling, northeast Louisiana region and it’s rich Indian heritage.
The first thing to know is there are over 700 ancient Indian earthworks in the state. The second thing to know is that many of them are located on privately owned land, popping up on farm properties. The four driving tours offer visitors access to up to 39 mound sites that span 5,000 years of history that include both private and public sites. The private property that contains Indian mounds have been included on the trail at the owners behest, and visitors are asked to stay on the shoulder of the road for these sites. Drivers can download a booklet with information and check roadside markers at each site to learn about the different kinds of mounds.
Why are there so many mounds in Louisiana? Experts have speculated that the state’s ecologically rich natural habitats were a draw for American Indians, who often came from all over the country to make use of the natural bounty. Rivers and streams, bayous and lakes, hills and forests populate state, all bursting with game, fish and fowl and everything in between. Thousands of years ago, the mounds constructed in Louisiana were celebrations of the bond the ancient Indians had with this verdant region. The engineering technology so admired at Cahokia was first on display in Louisiana and then spread throughout the Southeast and the Ohio Valley to Cahokia and beyond. Across the county there are magnificent mounds, all feats of engineering skill, but it’s Louisiana’s mounds that cover the greatest expanse of time, diversity of style, and level of preservation.
Arguably the most famous spot in the state is Poverty Point Earthworks, on Trail One’s ten-stop itinerary, off of Highway 577 in Pioneer, LA. Trail one is concentrated in the northeasternmost portion of the state, and Poverty Point is a location that has garnered lots of scientific inquiry and interest. Built before the Mayan pyramids were built, dated between 1650 and 700 B.C., this 400-acre site was constructed. It includes a complex collection of earthen mounds and ridges that overlook the Mississippi River flood plain. The central area has six rows of concentric ridges and five aisles. These form a partial octagon, with the diameter of the outermost ridges measuring three-quarters of a mile. The site is dominated by the massive Poverty Point Mound, which rises nearly 70 feet.
Archaeologists contend that for a pre-agricultural society, the inhabitants who built the structures at Poverty Point undertook a mind-blowingly enormous task. They had to import certain crucial supplies from great distances in order to build these structures. Evidence includes projectile points and stone tools found at the site that were made from raw materials that originated in the Ouachita and Ozark Mountains as well as the Ohio and Tennessee River valleys. Vessels needed in construction required the use of soapstone, which came from the Appalachian foothills of northern Alabama and Georgia. The scientists who have studied Poverty Point estimate that this prehistoric Indian culture needed at least five millionhours of labor to build the massive earthworks, an astonishing collaboration of effort involving thousands of people. According to the National Historic Landmarks Program, Poverty Point is the largest and most complex Late Archaic earthwork occupation and ceremonial site found in North America. As such, Poverty Point was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1962. Trail One also includes stops at Mardsen Mounds (public), as well as Galloway Place Mound, Julice Mound, and Transylvania Mounds (all private).
Indian Country Today Media Network took photographer Frank McMains out to glimpse the Balmoral Mounds, part of Trail Three’s seven-mound tour. The Balmoral Mounds are in the parish of Tensas (named for the Tensas Indians), among the least populated and poorest parishes in the state of Louisiana, but a stunning, fertile portion of the state that includes huge farms and Montana-sized skies overheard, the type of blue dome that seems to go on forever. The three mounds here form an equilateral triangle on the east and west sides of US 65, on the south side of Bayou de Rousett. An investigation in 1963 found that this site was occupied between 700-1200 AD, thanks to decorated ceramics and radio carbon dating. Cores from two of the mounds suggest they were built in single stages at about the same time, the third mound on the site has yet to be investigated.
Louisiana began protecting these mounds way back in 1933 with the public purchase of plots that would later became state parks. There is no other state in the country with a more concentrated, and historic, collection of earthen mounds.