Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point, Louisiana Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site

PPairOn Sunday, June 22, the Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point, Louisiana, became the 22nd U.S. site to be inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.  Inscription is a reflection of the “outstanding universal value” of Poverty Point, which “bears a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared.” (Criterion vi under the 1972 World Heritage Convention)

Poverty Point is an extraordinary prehistoric earthwork complex located in Louisiana’s Lower Mississippi Valley.  It was part of a trading network 3,000 years ago that stretched hundreds of miles across the North American continent.  Poverty Point is a remarkable system of monumental mounds and ridges that were built into the landscape for residential and ceremonial use by a sophisticated society of hunter-fisher-gatherers.  It is a masterpiece of engineering from its time as the major political, trading, and ceremonial center of North America.

Inscription of Poverty Point on the World Heritage List will help to raise awareness about the rich history of indigenous cultures in North America and challenge popular notions of hunger-gatherer culture.  Indeed, it is estimated that Poverty Point was constructed by 3,000 or more laborers, proving that ancient hunter-gatherer societies in North American were far more vast and complex than previously believed.

The 38th session of the World Heritage Committee was held in Doha, Qatar, from June 15-25.  In addition to Poverty Point, the committee evaluated 36 nominations to the World Heritage List submitted by States Parties to determine which cultural and natural properties of “Outstanding and Universal Value” should be inscribed on the list.  Sites on the World Heritage List are protected under the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.  In addition to adding new sites to the list, the Committee’s other responsibilities during the meeting are to monitor the state of conservation of properties on the World Heritage List, to decide which properties to inscribe or remove from the List of World Heritage in Danger, and to determine whether to delete a property from the World Heritage List.

The United States was the first signatory to the World Heritage Convention, and in 1978 Yellowstone National Park became one of the first sites to receive a World Heritage designation.  Russell Train, former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and founding director of the World Wildlife Fund, first called for a “World Heritage Trust” at a 1965 White House Conference.  Train encouraged international cooperation through the protection of Earth’s natural and cultural areas.  With the help of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Train’s ideas became a reality in the 1972 World Heritage Convention.  Today, over 1,000 natural and cultural properties are inscribed on the World Heritage List, 22 of which are located in the United States.