Big Oak Island and Little Oak Island are camps and habitation sites associated with the people of the Tchefuncte culture of the Lower Mississippi Valley, dating from as early as 800 BCE to as late as AD 200. The sites are located in the marshes of eastern New Orleans in the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge.
The sites were first investigated in 1939 when a team of archaeologists with the Works Progress Administration uncovered excavated the remains of a large shell midden at Big Oak Island composed of small Rangia clamshells as well as pieces of pottery, clay pipes, stone tools, and human burials. The artifacts found at Big Oak Island were re-analyzed in 1945 by James A. Ford and George I. Quimby. Taken with similar artifacts from other prehistoric sites around the Lake Pontchartrain Basin, Ford and Quimby suggested that the Tchefuncte culture emerged from the late Poverty Point culture between 800 and 700 B.C. in the Lower Mississippi Valley and remained in the area until about 200 A.D.
Additional archaeological digs commissioned by the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and led by University of New Orleans anthropologist J. Richard Shenkel began in the Summer of 1972. Shenkel noted two principal site types in the eastern New Orleans marsh. One type of site, exemplified by Big Oak Island, consisted of large shell middens that resulted from seafood processing. The other site type, as at Little Oak Island, was a village or base camp consisting of an earthen midden and postholes indicative of some type of structure. Shenkel reported that occupation of Big Oak Island began around 520 BCE when it was used as a temporary camp that was quickly abandoned. The shell midden on Big Oak Island was dated to between 300 and 200 BCE and corresponded with the earliest occupation of Little Oak Island. The meandering Mississippi River created a dynamic environment that eventually caused the islands to become surrounded by fresh water around 100 BCE., making the site unsuitable for the brackish Rangia clams. However, Shenkel found both sites continued to be used for burials. The latest pottery found on Big Oak Island was dated to 55 BCE
Big Oak and Little Oak Islands are two of what were once many Tchefuncte sites around the edges of Lake Pontchartrain. The Tchefuncte were hunters, fishers, and gatherers who lived in small villages centered in eastern Louisiana and stretching along the coast to west Mississippi and southeast Texas. The Tchefuncte people were a relatively sedentary social group, living in the same camps nearly year around. One of the defining characteristics of the Tchefuncte culture was their widespread and intensive use of pottery in Louisiana. Decorative modes on pots include incising, rocker stamping, punctuating, pinching, and stamping. The most distinctive material trait of Tchefuncte pottery is that it is soft, unskillfully fired and finished, and made from poorly prepared, inferior clays.
When Dr. Shenkel and the students of UNO archeology summer program started digging in the early 1970s, the fate of Big Oak and Little Oak Islands was far from certain. The prehistoric sites were part of a large tract of land in private ownership that was slated for development. An ad hoc committee of concerned citizens formed to have Big Oak Island and Little Oak Islands placed on the National Register of Historic Places. They were successfully added in 1971. The aim of further research into Big and Little Oak Islands was to preserve the land as part of the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park. Under the Emergency Wetlands Act of 1986, Big Oak and Little Oak Islands came under the protection of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.