Paleoindians in Tennessee

We do not know exactly when the first people entered the “New World” from Asia. However, we do have confidence that they had reached what is now Tennessee at the end of the last Ice Age (the Pleistocene) some 13,000 years ago. These people, ancestors of all modern Native Americans, came in small family groups of probably twenty-five to fifty individuals and practiced a hunting and gathering way of life. This adaptation goes back many thousands of years in the Old World. It is believed, from archaeological evidence, that they primarily hunted the large game of the Pleistocene, especially extinct forms such as mammoth, mastodon, and the giant bison. Horse, camel, paleollama, and deer were probably exploited along with smaller animals and edible plants.

Individual Paleoindian groups consisted of two or three related families participating in a seasonal round of hunting and gathering based upon the movement of large animals within large expanses of territory. To date, there is scant record of the physical appearance of these people since skeletal remains are lacking. However, we do believe that general life span was relatively short, with most individuals not living beyond the age of around forty years.

Evidence proving that Paleoindians occupied Tennessee is quite abundant. Recent archaeological investigations conducted by the Tennessee Division of Archaeology have recorded over one hundred camps or archaeological sites associated with this time period. The earliest Paleoindian groups, called Clovis after the original find near the town of the same name in New Mexico, are well represented. Some of the largest Clovis camp sites in the United States have been recorded in the Western Valley of Tennessee. In fact, this area may be the most densely settled region during the Paleoindian Period in the United States. An abundance of high quality chert (flint), used for making spearpoints and other tools, and the high density of large animals (megafauna) are thought to be the main reasons for this great number of Paleoindian sites in our state.

Recently, a kill/butchering site containing the remains of a mastodon was discovered in Middle Tennessee; it provided a date of over 13,000 years for an association of cut mastodon bones and stone tools from the site. This is one of the oldest dates for Paleoindians in the New World and is the first documented mastodon kill site in the Mid-South. Mammoth and giant bison kills have been recorded in the Southwest, and Florida has produced evidence for several mastodon kill and butchering sites.

Paleoindian peoples thrived in the Tennessee area for at least 3,000 years until the end of the Pleistocene and the extinction of large megafauna at about 10,500 years ago. These groups quickly adapted to the ever-changing environment and became experts at the hunting of smaller game, especially deer, and expanded their use of new plant resources. This new adaptation has been called the Archaic period by archaeologists.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Paleoindians in Tennessee
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 20, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018