Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 8


The First Tennesseans: Coats-Hines Site

Jesse Tune
Center for the Study of the First Americans
Texas A&M University

To the construction crew it was a day like any other Autumn day. The leaves had changed and were falling to the ground. The air was brisk as a cool breeze blew across the open field. The scent of smoldering fires filled the air as workers on the opposite side of the field burnt piles of brush that had already been cleared from fence rows. Construction of the new golf course was proceeding exactly as planned. As the bulldozer operator pushed out a line of small trees around what would soon be Hole 13, something protruding from the bank of a small drainage ditch caught his attention. As he got off of the bulldozer and walked over to have a closer look, he realized it was a couple of large bones – really large bones. Little did he know, that while standing there on the edge of the drainage that afternoon in 1977, he was not the first person to see those remains. The last time humans had seen the bones, which belonged to a female mastodon, was sometime at the end of the last Ice Age around 12,000-14,000 years ago…

Initially investigations of Mastodon B, 1994. Image courtesy the Tennessee Division of Archaeology.

After the initial discovery of mastodon remains in 1997, archaeologists from the Tennessee Division of Archaeology (TDOA) continued to survey the drainage over the next two decades. The remains of several more mastodons were identified and eventually excavated by the TDOA in 1977, 1994-1995, and 2010. Mastodons, like their relatives mammoths, lived in North America throughout the Pleistocene, but disappeared around 12,000 years ago. However, unlike mammoths that were grazers subsisting primarily on grass, mastodons were browsers and mainly ate small scrubby bushes.

Archaeologists Emanuel Breitburg, John Broster, and Mike Moore (left to right) uncover the remains of Mastodon B, 1994. Image courtesy the Tennessee Division of Archaeology.

While mastodon remains are relatively common throughout central and western Tennessee, the Coats-Hines site is unique. Excavations by the TDOA uncovered stone tools in direct contact with the remains of at least two mastodons. Furthermore, possible cutmarks left behind from the butchering of one of the mastodons have been identified. The butchered bones are on display at the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. In 2011 the Coats-Hines site was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

John Dowd prepares the bone bed for a photo, 1995. Image courtesy of the Tennessee Division of Archaeology.

Recently, new excavations were conducted at the Coats-Hines site to further document the context of the artifacts and bones, and also collect additional archaeological evidence demonstrating that people living in middle Tennessee at the end of the Pleistocene had direct contact with mastodons. Archaeologists from the Center for the Study of the First Americans, at Texas A&M University, excavated a large area of approximately 64 square meters over the course of 12 weeks.

Archaeologists from the Center for the Study of the First Americans, excavate at Coats-Hines in 2012. Image courtesy of Texas A&M University.

This excavation reaffirmed the presence of mastodons and other Pleistocene animals at the site. While deer, turkey, horse, and turtle have also been excavated at the site, stone tools have only been found in association with mastodon. The Texas A&M project also studied the geology of the site and determined that the remains of the extinct animals and stone tools were located in the bottom of a small drainage. The remains were buried in antiquity by 2.5-3 meters of gravels and sediment washing down the drainage from the surrounding hills. Based on the results of multiple excavations, the site appears to date to approximately 12,000-14,000 years ago. Analysis from the most recent excavation by Texas A&M is ongoing and the full results will be published in the next year.

Coats-Hines is one of four Tennessee archaeological sites identified for study in the new Tennessee 4th Grade Social Studies standards which were implemented for the 2014-15 school year. The Coats-Hines site appears in the section “The Land and People before European Exploration.”