WATSON BRAKE is an archaeological site in present-day Ouachita
Louisiana , from the Archaic period . Dated to about 5400
years ago (approx. 3500 BCE),
Watson Brake is considered the oldest
earthwork mound complex in
North America . It is older than the
Egyptian pyramids or England’s
Stonehenge . Its discovery and dating
in a paper published in 1997 changed the ideas of American
archaeologists about ancient cultures in the Southeast and their
ability to manage large, complex projects over centuries. The
archeologists revised their date of the oldest earthwork construction
by nearly 2000 years, as well as having to recognize that it was
developed over centuries by a hunter-gatherer society, rather than by
what was known to be more common of other, later mound sites: a more
sedentary society dependent on maize cultivation and with a
hierarchical, centralized polity.
The arrangement of human-made mounds at
Watson Brake was constructed
over centuries by members of a hunter-gatherer society. It is located
near Watson Bayou in the floodplain of the
Ouachita River , near
present-day Monroe in northern
United States . Watson
Brake consists of an oval formation of eleven earthwork mounds from
three to 25 feet (7.6 m) in height, connected by ridges to form an
oval nearly 900 feet (270 m) across.
Watson Brake is dated to 1,900 years before the better-known Poverty
Point in northern Louisiana; begun about 1500 BCE, it was previously
thought to be the earliest mound site in North America.
in the Americas started at an early date.
The discovery and dating of
Watson Brake as a Middle Archaic site
demonstrate that the pre-agricultural, pre-ceramic, indigenous
cultures within the territory of the present-day
United States were
much more complex than previously thought. While primarily
hunter-gatherers, they planned and organized large work forces over
centuries to accomplish the complex mound and ridge constructions.
Monumental constructions have marked the rise of social complexity
worldwide. The earthen mounds of Eastern
North America are linked to
mankind's monument tradition.
* 1 Discovery and dating
* 2 Ownership and management
* 3 See also
* 4 References
* 5 External links
DISCOVERY AND DATING
Schematic plan of the
Watson Brake Site
In the early 1980s, Reca Bamburg Jones, a local resident, brought
this site to the attention of professional archaeologists. By 1981,
after logging had revealed more of the site, Jones identified the
pattern of eleven mounds connected by ridges, a complex that was 280
yards across. In 1983, Jones and John Belmont published the site in a
survey of pre-history in the
Ouachita River Valley. Around this time
Joe W. Saunders , then regional archaeologist for the state, was shown
The site had been privately controlled since the 1950s. Approximately
half the site is still owned by several family members, who have
allowed archaeological excavations and associated work, but do not
permit public viewing. Recognizing the site's significance, in 1996
The Archaeological Conservancy purchased half the site and later sold
it to the state for preservation.
Since the 1990s, radiocarbon dating by a team from Northeast
Louisiana University established the great antiquity of the site. The
team of Joe W. Saunders et al. published a paper in Science in 1997
that established the age of the mound complex.
The analysis of 27 radiocarbon dates indicates that the site was
initially occupied around 4000 BCE during the Middle Archaic period .
Mound construction began at approximately 3500 BCE, and continued for
approximately 500 years. During that time period, the mounds were
enlarged in several stages. Excavations indicate that there was
sufficient time between building episodes for midden deposits of
residents to accumulate on top of the mounds and ridges. In addition,
teams from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of
Washington dated the site by using sand grains and organic acids in
Evidence of the middens indicate that
Watson Brake may have been used
as a "base by mobile hunter-gatherers from summer through fall."
Saunders and his team suggest that the building episodes at Watson
Brake coincide with periods of unpredictable rainfall caused by El
Nino-Southern Oscillation events. They may represent "a communal
response to new stresses of droughts and flooding that created a
suddenly more unpredictable food base."
Midden remains showed the
population relied on fish, shellfish, and riverine animals,
supplemented by local annuals: goosefoot (Chenopodium berlandieri),
knotweed (Polygonum spp.), and possibly marshelder (Iva annua). Over
time, the people consumed more terrestrial animals, such as deer,
turkey, raccoon, opossum, squirrel, and rabbits, which was likely
related to changing habitat and waterway conditions. The site appears
to have been abandoned around 2800 BCE. This may have been caused by
a "decline in the main channel, gravel/sand shoal habitats, backwater
swamps, and small-stream habitats" near the site.
Together with other Middle Archaic sites in
Louisiana and Florida,
Watson Brake shows the development of complex societies among
hunter-gatherer peoples. They occupied the site only on a seasonal
basis, but were capable of planning and organizing complex monumental
construction over a period of several hundred years.
In contrast to Poverty Point, where residents made projectile points
with materials traded from distant locations, including Wisconsin and
Tennessee, the artifacts of
Watson Brake show local materials and
production. The projectile points are Middle to Late Archaic in age,
and were produced more casually than those at Poverty Point. The
people heated local gravel for cooking stones to steam some of their
food. They created and fired earthenware items in a variety of shapes,
but researchers have not yet determined their functions.
OWNERSHIP AND MANAGEMENT
Eight members of the Gentry family have owned most of the site since
the 1950s. One member declines to sell property to the state, so the
site is not available for public viewing. The family have granted
specific permission to individual archaeologists to conduct research
* ^ A B C D E Saunders, Joe W.; Mandel, Rolfe D.; Sampson, C.
Garth; Allen, Charles M.; Allen, E. Thurman; Bush, Daniel A.;
Feathers, James K.; Gremillion, Kristen J. ; Hallmark, C. T.; Jackson,
H. Edwin; Johnson, Jay K.; Jones, Reca; Saucier, Roger T.; Stringer,
Gary L.; Vidrine, Malcolm F. (2005), "Watson Brake, a Middle Archaic
Mound Complex in Northeast Louisiana", American Antiquity, 70 (4):
631–668, doi :10.2307/40035868
* ^ A B Lori Tucker, "
Ouachita River Mounds: A Five Millennium
Louisiana Folklife, 2000, accessed 26 October 2011
* ^ A B C D E Joe W. Saunders*, Rolfe D. Mandel, Roger T. Saucier,
E. Thurman Allen, C. T. Hallmark, Jay K. Johnson, Edwin H. Jackson,
Charles M. Allen, Gary L. Stringer, Douglas S. Frink, James K.
Feathers, Stephen Williams, Kristen J. Gremillion , Malcolm F.
Vidrine, and Reca Jones, "A
Mound Complex in
Louisiana at 5400-5000
Years Before the Present", Science, 19 September 1997: Vol. 277 no.
5333, pp. 1796-1799, accessed 27 October 2011
* ^ A B C Amélie A. Walker, "Earliest
Mound Site", Archaeology
Magazine, Volume 51 Number 1, January/February 1998
* ^ Robert "Rob" Redding Jr., "Why the Public May Never See Watson
Brake", Redding News Review, 3 May 2009, accessed 26 Oct