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Beyond Hunter-Gatherer Complexity: The Paradoxes of Poverty Point, a Late Archaic Site in the Mississippi River Valley by Dr. T. R. Kidder, Washington University in St. Louis

Thursday, February 16, 2012
12:00 AM
Ruthven Museums Building Room 2009

Traditionally, hunter-gatherer social, political, and economic organization is thought to be inherently simple. Archaeological research in the last two decades has expanded our understanding of hunter gatherer complexity; political and economic variability is now widely recognized, and scholarly awareness of rich, complicated and historically variable social patterns has developed. Still, our thinking has been dominated by an essentialized approach, wherein hunt-gatherer simplicity is contrasted with structurally more complex tribes, chiefs, and states. Work at the Poverty Point site in northeast Louisiana provides data that allow for a reconsideration of aspects of hunter-gatherer complexity and the essential nature of this lifeway. Poverty Point is entirely unique—in size, monumental architecture, artifact content, and history—and the site defies standard functional explanations for hunter-gatherer settlements. While most explanations for Poverty Point’s genesis and reproduction assume that the site exists to fulfill an economically utilitarian function, we argue that Poverty Point emerged as a locus of ritual activity that enfolded peoples from across eastern North America. Here we consider the notion that Poverty Point and related sites are the products—at least in part—of theophany, pilgrimage, and prophesy. Imagining this sort of complexity for Poverty Point may seem extreme, but the evidence requires us to imagine hunter-gather lifeways from new vantages. Our data suggest that the lives of these hunter-gathers were inordinately rich, complicated, and historically situated and thus, invite us to consider that beyond the purely economic they were perhaps less different than we assume.