Poverty Point nominated for World Heritage List

Used with permission of the Louisiana Office of State Parks -- This rendering of the Poverty Point site in northeastern Louisiana shows the concentric ridges that are the signature of the site which has been nominated as a World Heritage Site.
Used with permission of the Louisiana Office of State Parks -- This rendering of the Poverty Point site in northeastern Louisiana shows the concentric ridges that are the signature of the site which has been nominated as a World Heritage Site.

Louisiana’s Poverty Point State Historic Site and its ancient mounds in West Carroll Parish are officially vying for a spot on the World Heritage List that includes such famous sites as the Taj Mahal, Stonehenge and the Grand Canyon.

Outgoing U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Thursday the nomination that was prepared by the state and the National Park Service. The nomination was submitted to the World Heritage Centre in Paris. The world list includes 962 sites in 157 countries, but only 21 in the U.S.

“The Poverty Point earthworks are the remarkable legacy of a prehistoric hunter-gatherer society that existed thousands of years ago,” Salazar said in the announcement. “Designation as a World Heritage Site not only would be an honor for both Louisiana and the United States, but also would be an invitation to domestic and international travelers …”

Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne said this effort has been in the works for a while and that he is “optimistic” Poverty Point will be added to the list when a final decision is made in 2014. Being the “No. 1” recommended site by the federal government certainly helps, he said.

“This is a huge story, not only for Louisiana, but especially for northeastern Louisiana — an area of the state that is in dire need of economic development,” Dardenne said.

Poverty Point’s ancient Native American mounds were built more than 3,000 years ago around 1500 B.C. or even older. It would take about 50 versions of Stonehenge put together to recreate the size of the Poverty Point mounds, said T.R. Kidder, a Washington University in St. Louis archaeologist and anthropologist who has extensively studied the northeastern Louisiana site.

“I’m very excited,” Kidder said Thursday. “It’s high time one of the world’s greatest archaeology sites is recognized for what it is.”

Kidder has called Poverty Point “the New York of its time” and the “origin of civilization in North America.”

It is believed the mounds were built in roughly 90 days with a lot of people in a very organized fashion, Kidder said, and the mounds prove that a “life of deep complexity and sociopolitical activity” existed back then. The Native Americans were much more than just hunters and gatherers, he said, they were building their versions of “cathedrals.”

The Poverty Point site consists of six enormous, concentric earthen ridges with an outer diameter of more than a half mile, and several large mounds, including one of the largest in North America, according to the Interior Department. This constructed landscape was the largest and most elaborate of its time on the continent. The particular form of the complex is not duplicated anywhere else in the world.

“Our collective history is richer and deeper than we give it credit for,” Kidder said. “(North American) history didn’t begin with the Mayflower.

“We, as a culture, tend to overlook our Native American ancestry,” he added.

Poverty Point is far too overlooked, Kidder said, and will hopefully receive more recognition as a tourist site.

“I think the biggest problem, personally, is that it’s not built of stone,” he said. “People just see it in a different kind of way.”

Kidder credited the state of Louisiana with taking great care of the site.

“Designation as a World Heritage Site is how the international community shines a light on the places that should be special to all of us,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis. “This nomination of Poverty Point earthwork is an important way to share what we value as a people, the places that define our society.”

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., also praised the nomination.

“Poverty Point, a remnant of a society from thousands of years ago, is an impressive example of Louisiana’s rich culture and history,” Vitter said in a prepared statement. “I applaud the State of Louisiana and National Park Service for recognizing the importance of this Louisiana treasure, and the amazing accomplishments of the ancient earthwork featured at Poverty Point will hopefully soon be recognized and appreciated across the country and internationally.”

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage List is part of the World Heritage Convention, an international treaty signed by 190 countries for natural site conservation and cultural site preservation first proposed by the U.S. in 1972.

After reviews by World Heritage Centre staff and by the International Council for Monuments and Sites, the nomination will be considered for inscription on the World Heritage List by the World Heritage Committee, which is a rotating body of 21 nations elected from among the signatories of the World Heritage Convention.

Inscription as a World Heritage Site does not impose any legal restrictions on property owners or neighbors of sites, nor does it give the United Nations any management authority or ownership rights in U.S. World Heritage Sites, which continue to be subject only to existing federal and local laws.

Two other potential nominations of U.S. sites are now in development: the San Antonio Franciscan Missions in Texas, and 11 buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright located throughout the U.S.