Our Views: A heritage of mystery

As the newest World Heritage Site, Poverty Point does not have the stateliness of the Great Pyramid at Giza or the Great Wall of China. Its 400 acres of ridgelines and ceremonial mounds, though, represent one of the world’s earliest metropolises — the only known large-scale settlement of mankind’s hunter-gatherer societies.

It flourished at about the time King Tut ruled in Egypt, but as Jonathan Tourtellot, of National Geographic, commented, Poverty Point’s significance has not been properly celebrated.

“We know much of Egypt’s ancient cultures, built with durable stone, written with hieroglyphics,” he said. “Those who built with less permanent silt and wood, who traded across equal or greater expanses, deserve our attention, as well, even if their works have suffered more at the hands of time.”

It is overdue recognition for Poverty Point in its listing as Louisiana’s only site recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO.

There are only 22 such sites in the United States, and new listings had been unlikely because of a diplomatic spat involving — what else? — the contentious Middle East. Congress refused to pay UNESCO dues because the agency admitted Palestine as a member.

We congratulate those who resolved this issue, including U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who took the lead in putting UNESCO funding for heritage sites into budget legislation. As pragmatic politics goes, it’s about as good a deal as Louisiana has ever fostered: world recognition for the northeast Louisiana region, which has few enough attractions to bring in tourists.

Now, it has, as Tourtellot said, “the best international endorsement any place can get.”

“It’s huge,” the state’s top tourism official, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, said Sunday of the designation. “It’s going to provide an economic shot in the arm for northeast Louisiana.”

Even if it were not that, it is an extraordinary recognition of the site that lay unappreciated for centuries, until researchers starting in the 1950s began to uncover its secrets. New mounds are being mapped and studied today.

Roughly 2,000 people lived among the site’s mounds and ridges for centuries, thanks to abundant fish and turtles in the bayou, as well as deer and squirrels in the land nearby.

For North America, “There’s nothing else like it at 3,400 years ago,” said Nancy Hawkins, of the state’s archeological staff.

Now, because of years of efforts by the state and with boosts from the National Park Service, a visitor center and interpretive tours bring back a world that was lost in the footprints of time.