Dirt Mounds Yield Clues to Antiquity Farm Wife's Find

Article excerpt

A Louisiana farm wife's persistence has led to what archaeologists are describing as a major discovery: the oldest known native-American mound "encampment" in North America.

Why the mounds were built remains mystery. But even with that question unanswered, they show that hunter-gatherer cultures of about 5,000 years ago "were capable of undertaking public architecture, an attribute of more complex societies," adds Joe Saunders, lead archaeologist on the project.

Built centuries before Egypt's Pharaohs raised their first pyramid, the 11 mounds at the site in northern Louisiana form an oval enclosure that is 1,900 years older than the next-oldest mound enclosure, also in Louisiana. The find is also forcing researchers to revise their views about the society that inhabited this region 5,000 to 5,400 years ago. "This find is extremely significant," says Robert Connelly, an archaeologist at the nearby Poverty Point mound complex, near Epps, La. Not only does it push back moundbuilding dates in North America, he continues, it also lays to rest the notion that Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Olmecs, who thrived in a region near what is now Vera Cruz, Mexico, were the source for monumental architecture in North America. "People in northeast Louisiana were 'doing Olmec' before the Olmecs," he quips. At the Watson Brake site, 20 miles southwest of Monroe, La., the largest mound stands 7.5 meters (24.6 feet) tall and is a familiar feature to long-time area residents. "I've lived in Ouachita Parish all my life. Everybody knew about this big mound, and there were little rises," says Reca Jones, the woman researchers credit for bringing the mounds to their attention. But, she adds, no one knew that the mounds and rises formed an oval. In the mid-1970s, after a timber company clear-cut the hardwood stands covering the site, "I walked it and realized, 'Hey, these ridges connect to these mounds.' " Mrs. Jones, the wife of a retired farmer and an amateur archaeologist, says she tried to interest various professional archaeologists in her discovery. One Harvard University archaeologist went so far as to map the area in 1983. But none took the site on as a major research project. Some dismissed it as part of the Poverty Point culture. …