30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 6

Paleoindian Pioneers of the Upper Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee

Jay Franklin
Associate Professor of Anthropology
East Tennessee State University

Upland areas do not typically fit into conventional models of human exploitation, except in cases where they are invoked as marginal areas used for hunting and gathering forays by ancient peoples who then returned to their lowland homes. However, work on the Upper Cumberland Plateau (UCP) of Tennessee has demonstrated this is not the case, and we can add the earliest Tennesseans to the list.

East Tennessee State University students excavate a rockshelter site on the Upper Cumberland Plateau. Photo by Alan Cressler.

East Tennessee State University excavations at the Rock Creek Mortar Shelter site on the Upper Cumberland Plateau. Photo by Alan Cressler.

At Rock Creek Mortar Shelter on the UCP, we have recorded a more or less continuous record of human occupation from at least the end of the Pleistocene (around 11,500 years ago) to about AD 1000. In the late Pleistocene and early Holocene deposits about 1.25 – 2 meters below surface, we recovered more than a dozen blades from a restricted area under the drip line of the shelter. Most of the blades were made/prepared from unipolar cores using a mix of hard hammer and soft hammer percussion.

There also seems to be a mix of skill level and/or execution in producing the blades. A few of the well made examples would be at home in European Late & Epi-Paleolithic assemblages, while a others are poorly executed. This potentially suggests the site was occupied by a family group as opposed to simply a group of hunters. It may have been that older, skilled knappers were teaching younger novices to make blades on site. It may also be that these earliest inhabitants of the UCP were coping with the constraints of using the locally available small rounded cobbles of Monteagle Chert for blade production (as opposed to large tabular cherts encountered in the lower Tennessee River drainage). Our excavations also recovered numerous core edge flakes and crested blade fragments that were removed to prepare cores for blade production. We have some evidence for over shot biface thinning flaking at the site, which is a technique common in Paleoindian assemblages.

The entire range of lithic reduction is present in these early levels, indicating chert cobbles were brought to the shelter for core reduction and tool production. Like later Holocene assemblages all over the UCP, there is evidence of biface production at Rock Creek Mortar Shelter. However, unlike the myriad other shelters we have excavated, we have already recovered far more unifacial tools at this site than any other on the UCP. So far, 50 tools/pieces have been analyzed for microscopic use wear. Activities represented in the late Pleistocene/early Holocene levels include early stage hide and meat processing and scraping wood. In addition, two tools possess some sort of residue which we think may be blood.

We are excited to continue our work at this important site. We hope to recover blade cores in the coming field season so that we may reconstruct the entire blade production sequence. More generally, we will continue to explore why these early people ventured onto this rugged, upland landscape far removed from a major stream and tens of kilometers from primary raw material sources.

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