Sunday, June 15, 2003

Interview: Kathleen O'Neal Gear

Anyone who has ever visited Poverty Point has probably wondered what life was like at the site 3,500 years ago, but archaeologists Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear took it one step further.

Their latest book, "People of the Owl," is set right here in our back yard and tells a fictional tale of a time of tribulation for the tribes that lived there. It's the 11th book in their series, commonly called the "People" books, that uses fiction to teach about Native American cultures.

"What we are doing in the novels is detailing 15,000 years of North American prehistory," Michael Gear said. "The important thing about doing a novel is that you can put real people there in that time. People can relate to fictional characters in a story better than they can to dry facts in an archaeological report."

Kathleen Gear agreed that fiction can make a powerful teaching tool.

"What we try to do is entertain at the same time we educate about North America's archaeology," she said. "If we have done our jobs well at the end of the book, the people who read this novel will understand Poverty Point culture because they have lived in that time, in that place, with those people."

The Gears said they began writing the series because they thought Americans' knowledge of the continent's past was woefully lacking. With 16 million copies of the books in print worldwide, the Gears may be making some headway in their battle. They're surprised by the popularity of the series, which has now been translated into 18 languages, but they say they still have a long way to go.

"More Americans can name archaeological sites in Cambodia than in their own country," Michael Gear said. "In a sense, it's the world's lost heritage. We don't think of North America as being a lost continent, but its prehistory certainly is."

During their research for "People of the Owl," the Gears went to great lengths to find out all they could about Poverty Point. They spoke with local and national experts, analyzed the archaeological reports and used an ethnographic analogy, which means they studied the social, political and religious structures of other tribes in the region and tried to fill in gaps in the archaeological record.

"Archaeological data is like a shredded black and white photograph," said Kathleen Gear. "We piece it back together as best we can, but there are huge gaps in the information. At the Poverty Point site, for example, only one-half of 1 percent of the site has actually been excavated."

With so little to go on, the Gears say it's tough to try to give an accurate portrayal of what life might have been like at the site. But they do try to back everything in the book up with facts.

"Everything that we speculate on in the book is something that we can support to our academic colleagues," Michael Gear said.

As an example, he points to the fact that there are six clans in the book. The idea is based on geography and culture. He said the layout of the city itself indicates that there were six divisions, and the cultures that are descended from Poverty Point all hold the number six sacred.

One of the things the Gears most enjoyed about the study of Poverty Point was doing research on the Poverty Point objects, which are the clay objects the natives used to regulate the temperature of their ovens.

"We did a study to find out what they were cooking in the earth ovens, and there were a couple of things in there that are still a mystery to us," Kathleen Gear said. "We found spruce cells and sage. There isn't spruce for miles, and the closest sage is in southern Missouri. They must have been importing these things, and we're still not sure what they were using them for."

The Gears say they find Poverty Point fascinating for a variety of reason, the biggest being that it could be the first city in America. Michael Gear points to the massive moundworks, the population of the Macon Bayou area in general and evidence of trade with tribes as far away as current-day Wisconsin.

"We think that we're justified in making the assertion that it's America's first city," he said. "We think that Poverty Point is where a lot of the ideas came together which would create the eastern culture which would terminate in people like the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Tunica, Caddo and Cherokee. It's the place where everything starts."

As for the Gears, they'll keep writing the "People" books, and they have plenty of cultures left to explore.

"All that we've done so far is touch - just barely touch - the most important cultures in North America," Kathleen Gear said. "There are thousands of cultures left to study. We've only surveyed about 4 percent of North America for archaeological sites, which means there is an extraordinary amount out there that we still don't know."

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