The Paleoindian and Early Archaic Record in Tennessee

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 3

Jesse W. Tune
Department of Anthropology, Fort Lewis College

The Tennessee Fluted Point Survey (TFPS) is one of the most comprehensive statewide archaeological surveys in North America. Not only does this survey differentiate between Paleoindian point types, but it also includes Early Archaic point types. To say that Tennessee possesses some of the densest concentrations of Paleoindian and Early Archaic artifacts in North America is somewhat of an understatement. To hopefully get this point across and try to provide a general summary of what it might mean, I’m going to throw a lot of numbers around and share some maps of where artifacts have been found. Then I’ll try to explain why Tennessee appears to be a unique place for Paleoindian and Early Archaic archaeology.

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Image from: Morse, Dan, Phyllis Morse, and John Waggonee 1964, Fluted Points from Smith County, Tennessee. Tennessee Archaeologist 20:1(17).

First, a little background about Paleoindian and Early Archaic research in Tennessee. While there are exceptional numbers of Paleoindian and Early Archaic artifacts recorded across the state, nearly all have been recovered from plowed fields and eroded shorelines of lakes and streams. Artifacts recovered in these types of settings are typically not in their original location, and any datable materials that were buried with them are now long gone. Consequently, while individual counties in Tennessee having more Clovis points than Arizona and New Mexico combined (where Clovis research began), the majority of Paleoindian and Early Archaic research has been focused on other regions with more datable sites.

However, there is a long history of Paleoindian and Early Archaic research in Tennessee. This research began in earnest in 1945 with Thomas M. N. Lewis’s study of fluted points in Tennessee. In an attempt to locate fluted points in buried contexts, in 1958 Lewis and Madeline Kneberg investigated the Nuckolls site, along the Lower Tennessee River, where they found an extensive surface collection of Paleoindian and Early Archaic artifacts along the shoreline. In 1964 Dan Morse and colleagues published the first map of the statewide fluted point distribution in Tennessee (see above), which included 278 points. By 1983, Alfred Guthe reported that 389 fluted points had been recovered in Tennessee. Like others before him, Guthe made the prediction that this number represented only a small portion of the fluted points that would eventually be documented from Tennessee. Turns out he was right…

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Distribution of all fluted points recorded in North America. Image from PIDBA (

In 1988 John Broster and colleagues at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology began intensively expanding the TFPS. As of the most recent update (2013) a total of 5,497 Paleoindian and Early Archaic points are recorded in the TFPS, which are made accessible through the Paleoindian Database of the Americas. As David Anderson and colleagues discussed in their post yesterday, compiling large-scale datasets and distributions of artifacts is critical to asking and answering the big picture questions that often fascinate archaeologists.


Frequency of points in Tennessee by time period and region.

Paleoindian and Early Archaic points are concentrated toward the center of Tennessee, with an overwhelming majority of all points documented from the Highland Rim, Central Basin, and Coastal Plain. The vast majority of all points occurs in the Highland Rim (63.1%). The Central Basin (14.5%) and Coastal Plain (13.9%) have roughly equal frequencies of points. So points from these three regions alone make up nearly 95% of all Paleoindian and Early Archaic points in the entire state!

Another way to look at this data is to scale the densities of points to account for the different sizes of each physiographic region. The density of all Paleoindian and Early Archaic points throughout the state is 84 points per 1,000 km2.

So what does this really mean in terms of the early prehistory of Tennessee and archaeological research? Why is it such a big deal that there are so many artifacts found in Tennessee?


Densities of point types per 1,000 square km.

Well, basically there are far more Paleoindian and Early Archaic points in Tennessee than in most other states. Also, the distributions of points throughout the state reveal distinct patterns. Regardless of point type (or time period) there are more points toward the center of the state. While this is a complex issue to unwrap, it undoubtedly relates to the distribution of resources, like stone to make tools and riverine resources that would have attracted animals.

More importantly though, studying large-scale distributions of artifacts helps archaeologists interpret how people were using and interacting with their environments on the macroscale. These type of studies allow us to ask questions about settlement strategies, territorial ranges, migration routes, and trade and interaction networks (just to list a few).

Basically, this all tells us something about changes in how people organized themselves across the landscape, and how that organization system may have changed over time. Paleoindian points in Tennessee occur in a larger area than Early Archaic points do. Again, while this is a complex issue to understand, there appears to be a reduction in territories over time. Paleoindian groups were likely more using larger territories than subsequent Early Archaic groups.