Garfish – It’s NOT What’s for Dinner!
Tennessee Division of Archaeology
Tanya M. Peres, PhD, RPA
President, Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology
Director, Rutherford County Archaeology Research Program
If you’ve ever seen a modern gar up close, or even in pictures, you know these fish are creatures from the ancient past. Gar evolved into their current form around 100 million years ago. They have body armor consisting of bony scales, prominent sharp teeth, and a semi-aggressive nature that prompted naturalist William Bartram to describe the fish as a “warlike, voracious creature.”
There are five surviving species of gar still swimming in the waters of the Southeastern United States today, including alligator gar, spotted gar, longnose gar, shortnose gar, and Florida gar. We find their scales, vertebrae, and jaws archaeologically at sites across the Southeast dating to the Archaic period (ca. 8000-1000 BC) through the Mississippian (ca. AD 1000-1450). Gar remains have been reported from at least 15 sites in Tennessee including Eva, Castalian Springs, Fewkes, and Toqua.
In most cases, archaeologists have treated gar remains as part of the daily food waste – especially at sites from the Archaic and Woodland periods. Conversely, when garfish parts are reported from late prehistoric (i.e., Mississippian) sites, they are usually interpreted as the remains of feasting events held by and for the elite residents of the site. These assumptions of garfish-as-food fit with traditional archaeological interpretations of animal remains, but stand in contrast to ethnohistoric and ethnographic accounts which describe how gar were used by Native Americans following European contact. This discrepancy recently caught our attention, and prompted us to look more closely at the modern and historic accounts of garfish use by Native Americans in the Southeast, with the idea that these might reveal information that would allow us to more thoroughly and accurately interpret garfish remains from archaeological sites.
In our research we were only able to identify two accounts of historic Native American gar consumption. In one of these records, Bartram describes that during the late eighteenth century in central Florida, gar was “sometimes” cooked by being buried whole beneath hot embers. This cooking method would leave behind an archaeological signature of carbonized scales and other burnt bones. However, few of the gar remains recovered archaeologically from Tennessee or the Southeast have been noted as being burned, carbonized, or calcined.
Moreover, the two accounts of gar consumption are directly contradicted by ethnographic data suggesting gar were not eaten by certain Native American groups. For example, gar were among species the Cherokee historically regarded as unclean, and subject to exacting “blood revenge.” Additionally, linguistic work by Dr. Heidi Altman (Cultural Anthropologist and Linguist at Georgia Southern University) has shown that gar is not among the eleven named fish species considered edible or otherwise significant in Cherokee folklore.
So, if garfish were not eaten, why do we find their scales and parts of their skeletons in our excavation units and artifact screens? Discussions of gar in online fishing forums often state that Native Americans used larger scales as arrow points. This function appears in two ethnohistoric accounts (from Florida and Louisiana), and is sometimes proposed in the archaeological literature for finds of isolated alligator gar scales. However, use of the scales as arrow points would have resulted in specific wear patterns from hafting and sharpening. Only two of the archaeological identifications of gar which we have reviewed record evidence of these activities.
Much of the available ethnographic and ethnohistoric data for Native American gar use describe tattooing and scratching functions. Tattooing was practiced by most Native American groups in the Southeast prior to the 1700s, and gar teeth were recorded historically as tattoo implements among both the Chickasaw and Chitimacha. Experimental testing, including our own previous research, has shown that gar dentition is indeed adequately -if not ideally- suited for tattooing.
During scratching rituals, sharp objects were dragged across the skin of participants deep enough to draw blood and leave behind temporary scars. At least 12 ethnographic and ethnohistoric sources record the use of garfish jaws or teeth for scratching among the Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Catawaba, and Yuchi, and gar mandibles continue to be used for scratching performed at Muscogee busks. We believe it is likely that gar mandibles recovered archaeologically from sites such as Hiwassee Island were used either for scratching or tattooing.
Finally, we learned through our research that gar functioned as both individual and group totems or talismans. The gar is the historic tribal emblem of the Coushatta tribe of Louisiana. In the late nineteenth or early twentieth century gar were carved on the front posts of the Coushatta tribal leader’s bed, and a large carved wooden gar was used by the tribe for ritual dances. Today the gar appears as the central element on the official seal of the Coushatta, where it represents courage, wisdom, strength, and discipline.
It is widely accepted that some animals served as food resources for people in the past. However, human-animal relationships are, and were, much more complex than the simple equation “animals equal meat.” Animal remains recovered from archaeological contexts have much to tell us about social and political systems and worldviews of the indigenous peoples of Tennessee and the American Southeast. By using every data category available to us, including ethnographic and ethnohistoric literature, we are perhaps better able to understand the gar’s place in the lives of ancient peoples.
A substantially expanded version of this discussion will appear as the chapter “Reinterpreting the use of Garfish (Family: Lepisosteidae) in the Archaeological Record of the American Southeast” in the forthcoming volume People with Animals: Perspectives and Studies in Ethnozooarchaeology (Oxbow Press, edited by Lee Broderick).