Watson Brake

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Watson Brake
Watson Brake Aerial Illustration HRoe 2014.jpg
Artist's conception of the Watson Brake Site
USA Louisiana location map.svg
Archaeological site icon (red).svg
Location within Louisiana today
Location Logtown, Louisiana,  Ouachita Parish, Louisiana, Flag of the United States.svg  USA
Region Ouachita Parish, Louisiana
Coordinates 32°22′6.31″N92°7′53.00″W / 32.3684194°N 92.1313889°W / 32.3684194; -92.1313889
Founded3500 BCE
Cultures Archaic period
Site notes
Responsible body: private

Watson Brake is an archaeological site in present-day Ouachita Parish, 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. [1] 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.

Archaeological site Place in which evidence of past activity is preserved

An archaeological site is a place in which evidence of past activity is preserved, and which has been, or may be, investigated using the discipline of archaeology and represents a part of the archaeological record. Sites may range from those with few or no remains visible above ground, to buildings and other structures still in use.

Ouachita Parish, Louisiana Parish in the United States

Ouachita Parish is located in the northern part of the U.S. state of Louisiana. As of the 2010 census, the population was 153,720. The parish seat is Monroe. The parish was formed in 1807.

Mound Artificial heaped pile of earth, gravel, sand, rocks, or debris

A mound is a heaped pile of earth, gravel, sand, rocks, or debris. Most commonly, mounds are earthen formations such as hills and mountains, particularly if they appear artificial. A mound may be any rounded area of topographically higher elevation on any surface. Artificial mounds have been created for a variety of reasons throughout history, including ceremonial, burial (tumulus), and commemorative purposes.


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 Louisiana, 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. [1]

Ouachita River river in the United States of America

The Ouachita River is a 605-mile-long (974 km) river that runs south and east through the U.S. states of Arkansas and Louisiana, joining the Tensas River to form the Black River near Jonesville, Louisiana. It is the 25th-longest river in the United States.

Monroe, Louisiana City in Louisiana, United States

Monroe is the eighth-largest city in the U.S. state of Louisiana. It is the parish seat of Ouachita Parish. In the official 2010 census, Monroe had a population of 48,815. The municipal population declined by 8.1 percent over the past decade; it was 53,107 in the 2000 census. After a recheck in 2012, the Census Bureau changed the 2010 population from 48,815 to 49,147. Mayor Jamie Mayo, however, maintains that the Monroe population is more than 50,000 and indicated that he will pursue a continued challenge to the count.

Louisiana U.S. state in the United States

Louisiana is a state in the Deep South region of the South Central United States. It is the 31st most extensive and the 25th most populous of the 50 United States. Louisiana is bordered by the state of Texas to the west, Arkansas to the north, Mississippi to the east, and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. A large part of its eastern boundary is demarcated by the Mississippi River. Louisiana is the only U.S. state with political subdivisions termed parishes, which are equivalent to counties. The state's capital is Baton Rouge, and its largest city is New Orleans.

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. Mound building in the Americas started at an early date.

Poverty Point Prehistoric site of the Poverty Point culture in northeastern Louisiana, United States

Poverty Point State Historic Site is a prehistoric earthwork constructed by the Poverty Point culture. The Poverty Point site is located in present-day northeastern Louisiana though evidence of the Poverty Point culture extends throughout much of the Southeastern Woodlands. The culture extended 100 miles (160 km) across the Mississippi Delta and south to the Gulf Coast. The Poverty Point site has been designated as a U.S. National Monument, a U.S. National Historic Landmark, and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located in the Southern United States, the site is 15.5 miles (24.9 km) from the current flow of the Mississippi River, and is situated on the edge of Macon Ridge, near the village of Epps in West Carroll Parish, Louisiana.

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.

Indigenous peoples Ethnic group descended from and identified with the original inhabitants of a given region

Indigenous peoples, also known as First peoples, Aboriginal peoples or Native peoples, are ethnic groups who are the original settlers of a given region, in contrast to groups that have settled, occupied or colonized the area more recently. Groups are usually described as indigenous when they maintain traditions or other aspects of an early culture that is associated with a given region. Not all indigenous peoples share this characteristic, as many have adopted substantial elements of a colonizing culture, such as dress, religion or language. Indigenous peoples may be settled in a given region (sedentary) or exhibit a nomadic lifestyle across a large territory, but they are generally historically associated with a specific territory on which they depend. Indigenous societies are found in every inhabited climate zone and continent of the world.

North America Continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere

North America is a continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered by some to be a northern subcontinent of the Americas. It is bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the west and south by the Pacific Ocean, and to the southeast by South America and the Caribbean Sea.

Discovery and dating

Schematic plan of the Watson Brake Site Watson Brake Mounds - Map.png
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. [2]

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. [1] Recognizing the site's significance, in 1996 The Archaeological Conservancy purchased half the site and later sold it to the state for preservation. [2]

The Archaeological Conservancy is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that acquires and preserves archaeological sites in the United States. Whereas nearly every other nation protects all archaeological sites within its borders as part of its national patrimony, in the United States archaeological resources on private land are the private property of the landowner. As a result, archaeological sites in the United States are subject to destruction by urban development and sprawl, mechanized agricultural and land-leveling, and commercial looting to fuel the antiquities trade. By the 1970s the extent of archaeological site loss was increasing recognized as a crisis for the scientific study of the nation's past.

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. [3]

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. [1] 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 the soils. [4]

Evidence of the middens indicate that Watson Brake may have been used as a "base by mobile hunter-gatherers from summer through fall." [4] Saunders and his team suggest that the building episodes at Watson Brake coincide with periods of unpredictable rainfall caused by El Niño-Southern Oscillation events. They may represent "a communal response to new stresses of droughts and flooding that created a suddenly more unpredictable food base." [1] 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. [3] The site appears to have been abandoned around 2800 BCE. [4] 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. [3]

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. [3]

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. [3]

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 on site. [5]

See also

Related Research Articles

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 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, JSTOR   40035868
  2. 1 2 Lori Tucker, "Ouachita River Mounds: A Five Millennium Mystery", Louisiana Folklife, 2000, accessed 26 October 2011
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 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
  4. 1 2 3 Amélie A. Walker, "Earliest Mound Site", Archaeology Magazine, Volume 51 Number 1, January/February 1998
  5. Robert "Rob" Redding Jr., "Why the Public May Never See Watson Brake", Redding News Review, 3 May 2009, accessed 26 Oct 2009