Tennessee Dog Burials

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 30

Lacey Fleming
University of Alberta

The puppy burial during excavation.

The puppy burial during excavation.

One afternoon in September 2004, as an undergraduate student working on a CRM project in eastern Davidson County, I was tasked with excavating what appeared to be an unremarkable circular feature. It was likely prehistoric given the site, and only visible because the soil inside the feature was considerably darker than the soil around it. Clearly it was evidence of some kind of past human activity, but we wouldn’t have any idea of what that might be until it was excavated. After half an hour of careful digging, what seemed to be the leg bones of a small, four-legged creature were visible. When I finished excavating, I realized I had uncovered the grave of a puppy, placed in the ground thousands of years ago, and—it seemed—with all the love and care a human might bury a beloved pet today.

I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before that afternoon that dogs accompanied the first humans on their journey into the Americas, or that the people who arrived later arrived on the continent likely would be traveling with dogs as well. After all, the dog is considered the first domesticated animal—the available archaeological and genetic evidence indicates it joined forces with us at least 20,000 years ago. The dog would have been an important ally as humans spread across the Americas, in part because it:

  • is good at barking; this habit of most dogs serves as an alarm, a deterrent, or both, against predators
  • has an excellent sense of smell that makes them invaluable hunting partners
  • has a tendency to clean up human refuse, which helps to keep away scavenging animals

My fascination with this puppy’s burial blossomed into a larger research project as I learned more dogs were interred in a similar manner across the state of Tennessee. With many and various forms of assistance from MTSU’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology and the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, I was able to analyze the skeletal remains of the puppy, as well as those of nine dogs from four additional prehistoric contexts in Middle Tennessee, including both the Fernvale and Riverbend Prison sites. As a student of zooarchaeology, I was curious about the dogs’ size, and hoped I would be able to assign each to a sex and to determine how old they were at death. However, I was particularly interested in how the dogs had been regarded by humans during their lives. Were they merely pets, as their burials suggested?

During my analysis the following year, I read a paper by Walker et al. (2005) that discussed several dog burials from Dust Cave, a prehistoric site in northern Alabama. In that paper, they argued the Dust Cave dogs showed signs of having carried or hauled heavy items with their backs, an observation supported by an incredible amount of ethnohistoric data. Many of the Dust Cave dogs’ vertebral spinous processes (the knobby bits of bone you may feel as you pet a dog’s back) were deformed and/or misshapen. When archaeologists who study human or animal bone see these kinds of changes, we often attempt to identify what caused the bone to take on the new shape. Often these changes are linked to specific, habitual activities a human or animal carried out in life. These particular changes—or pathologies—prompted Walker and colleagues to consult with a group of university-based veterinary specialists who “unanimously concurred that the damage … was probably due to weight bearing down on that area of the dogs’ backs.” This means these dogs weren’t just pets or hunting companions—they were performing a crucial role in helping humans transport items across the landscape.

So of course I checked my dogs’ spinous processes. And wouldn’t you know … ?

Misshapen dog spinous processes from a site in middle Tennessee. Dogs that don’t carry or haul weight have perfectly straight spinous processes.

Misshapen dog spinous processes from a site in middle Tennessee. Dogs that don’t carry or haul weight have perfectly straight spinous processes.

In sum, five of the ten prehistoric dogs I examined showed considerable evidence for the weight-bearing pathology. Of those who exhibited the pathology, four were identified positively as male by the presence of a baculum, or penis bone, and also were estimated to be the largest individuals in my sample. Overall, the weight and size estimates for these dogs ranged from small to medium, roughly corresponding to the dimensions of the modern-day rat terrier and Finnish spitz breeds.

The hind legs of the Fernvale dog. Because the specimens are in correct anatomical position, the right leg is to the left of the frame.

The hind legs of the Fernvale dog. Because the specimens are in correct anatomical position, the right leg is to the left of the frame.

Interestingly, one of the dogs in my sample (from the Fernvale site in Williamson County) that didn’t have warped spinous processes experienced something else entirely. In 2012, I returned to this dog, a fully-grown male, whose right hind leg was severely misshapen. The ball-and-socket joint of the dog’s right hip was completely destroyed, yet showed signs of a naturally occurring repair. The dog’s upper leg bone also was broken, though it is not yet clear if this is related to his hip condition. Additionally, the dog’s lower right leg bones were fused together in an unusual way, suggesting the trauma to the right hip had implications for the dog’s entire leg, and that the leg may have been atrophied. My research on this dog is ongoing, though recently I have favored a disease-based interpretation of its skeletal pathologies, and I am investigating the possibility that the disease was readily transmissible between humans and dogs. Given the dog’s condition, it is tempting to suggest it required the daily ministrations of a human caregiver, although there are many examples of three-legged dogs who don’t need extraordinary human care. Perhaps more telling is the fact that this dog was interred alongside an elderly human female?

The life of an animal is written in part through its bones. In looking at these dogs’ skeletal materials, I have begun to piece together the kinds of daily activities they were carrying out, which helps to inform what humans who lived at the same time were doing. That dogs seem to have been used as traction animals thousands of years ago is a fascinating, yet generally underappreciated, aspect of life for the prehistoric inhabitants of North America. Zooarchaeology, once characterized as the part of archaeology that provides information on the meat component of ancient human diets, is trending toward new understandings of human-animal relationships in which the circumstances of animal lives are just as significant as their deaths. At this very moment, other scholars in Tennessee are taking our state’s prehistoric dog research to the next level, and I couldn’t be more excited to see what new insights will emerge in the near future!

*Editor’s Note: For more on the early domestic dog in Tennessee, be sure to read Meagan Dennison’s post for the 2014 “30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology” blogfest!


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).

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)

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

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.