Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 20


Early Domestic Dogs in Tennessee

Meagan E. Dennison
Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Dog Burial #1 from Chota-Tanasi, an historic Cherokee village in Monroe County. This dog was possibly crossed with a European breed. He is notable for his advanced age and many pathologies that undoubtedly required direct human care late in life (Parmalee and Bogan 1978:104).

Today, many Tennessee residents share their homes with one or more four-legged, fur-covered companions who they take on long walks, dress in Halloween costumes and spend more money on grooming and healthcare than they would ever afford themselves. The domestic dog is by far humanity’s most ubiquitous and beloved animal companion. Long before European breeds, such as German Shepherds, Dachshunds and Blue Ticks, roamed through Tennessee back yards and dog parks, a different type of domestic dog hunted and foraged alongside the earliest Tennesseans. Their deliberate interment in shell mounds, abandoned storage pits, village plazas and burial mounds preserved the record of their presence in prehistory, and now archaeologists are using this skeletal data to discover how these dogs lived and evaluate just how important they were in past human society.

Dogs were domesticated from wolves in the Old World, sometime before 13,000 years ago. When people first colonized the Americas, they most likely made the journey with domestic dogs. The oldest domestic dog skeletons in the New World come from three deliberate interments recovered from the Koster site in central Illinois. These skeletons date to the early Middle Archaic period, about 8,500 years ago.

Negative painted dog pot from the Toqua site, Monroe County (Chapman 1985:96)

The earliest archaeological domestic dogs in Tennessee were recovered from the Eva Site in Benton County, and date to the late Middle Archaic period, about 7,000-5,000 years ago. At Eva, 18 complete or nearly complete dog skeletons were uncovered by archaeologists Madeline Kneberg and Tom Lewis in the 1950s. Only 4 dogs were interred with humans, yet all were treated in a similar fashion to the 180 human burials at the site, by being placed in a distinct burial pit and in a flexed, or fetal, position. Also similar to humans, dogs were interred whole, indicating that they were not consumed, and one dog was accompanied by several burial items. For many of us, including the archaeologists who excavated these special burials, this similar treatment to humans in death represents a special relationship between humans and dogs that has existed for thousands of years. As Lewis and Lewis (1961:144) note “the care with which dogs were buried indicates an attitude of affection toward dogs, and may imply that dogs performed some important function in the life of the people.”

The Eva site represents the most dog burials recovered from a single locale in Tennessee, however, similar dog burials have been documented at more than a dozen archaeological sites across the state ranging in time from the Late Archaic through Protohistoric periods (5,800 cal BP – AD 1700). In all, more than 50 indigenous domestic dog burials have been uncovered in Tennessee.

Edward Curtis 1928, vol. 18 Plate 630

Many of these dogs have been examined for size dimensions and pathologies to better understand the role they played in human society. Surprisingly, these dogs were actually quite small, between 30 – 50 cm at the shoulder, about the size of a beagle (Worthington 2008). Even more surprising, skeletal trauma indicates their use as pack animals (Warren 2004). Fractured and healed spinous processes of the thoracic and lumbar vertebra indicate that these dogs carried heavy packs throughout life, likely aiding their mobile human companions. Native American use of dogs as pack animals has been recorded ethnographically in the Plains.

These ancient breeds have all but vanished due to the influx of Old World breeds over the last 500 years. However, the skeletons left behind offer archaeologists and dog lovers alike a glimpse into the lives of earliest domestic dogs to roam the river valleys and forests of Tennessee, and demonstrate just how special and important these animals were in past human societies.


Chapman, Jefferson
1985     Tellico Archaeology, 12,000 years of Native American History. Report of Investigation No. 43, Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Occasoinal Paper No. 5, Frank H. McClung Museum, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Publications in Anthropology No. 41, Tennessee Valley Authority.

Lewis, Thomas M. and Madeline Kneberg Lewis
1961     Eva, An Archaic Site University of Tennessee Press Knoxville

Parmalee, Paul W. and Arthur E. Bogan
1978     Cherokee and Dallas Dog Burials from the Little Tennessee River Valley. Tennessee Anthropologist 3(1):100-112.

Warren, Diane M.
2004     Skeletal Biology and Paleopathology of Domestic Dogs from Prehistoric Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Indiana University, Bloomington.

Worthington, Brian E.
2008     An Osteometric Analysis of Southeastern Prehistoric Domestic Dogs. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Florida State University.