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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
by Katie Yenna
Thousands of years before members of the historic tribes lived in Tennessee, their ancient ancestors lived here. They were strong people who lived through the Ice Age, the extinction of their main food source, and the encroachment of foreign settlers. They also did not have a written language, so what they left behind tells us a story of how they lived, worked, and celebrated their culture. Today, you are going to read about one important part of their life, hunting.
The Paleo-Indians (lived 15,000BCE to 8,000BCE) were the first known people to inhabit our state. They were considered nomadic people because they followed animals wherever they roamed and hardly ever stayed in one place. They did this because they needed food from large animals like the mastodon, which provided them with fur, meat, and tusks for their tools. So, as you can see, they were extremely important to these ancient people. Below you will see the lower half of a mastodon jawbone found in Tennessee.
Mastodon Jaw, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
In order to kill these large animals, they developed tools that helped them be very successful hunters. Many of these tools were made of hard stone and wood but tended to wear out quickly. This means they needed to be replaced often. That’s one of the reasons we are able to find so many of these projectile points (also known as “arrowheads”) in the ground today. Each point would be attached to the end of a long wooden spear and the hunter simply threw it at the animal they were hunting. It was that simple! However, this method took a lot of skill and hours of practice to get right. The hunter also had to throw it extremely hard and fast in order to kill the animal quickly and avoid getting too close to it. The projectile point you see below could have been used on the end of a spear or attached to a knife handle. These objects were often sharpened and used for other things as needed before they completely wore out.
Projectile Point, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
As time went on, the Archaic peoples began to emerge in Tennessee and began to move away from nomadic life as their food source began to change. The large mastodons that they had hunted for thousands of years began to die out and became extinct. They began hunting smaller animals that stayed in the same place year-round and ones that existed in larger numbers. These animals included deer, rabbits, fish, and turkeys. This created shifts in their hunting tools, like the addition of this atlatl hook. This tool made from deer bone or antler was a very important advancement in hunting technology for these early people.
This atlatl hook was found in Jackson County, Tennessee, Dated 4000-2000BCE,
Tennessee State Museum Collection.
This simple tool was attached to the end of the spear that was being used to hit an animal. The hunter held onto the atlatl piece, drew their arm back and simply threw the spear. It would allow the spear to be thrown faster, further, and with greater accuracy than before. Also, it kept the hunter at a safer distance from the animal they were hunting because they could now throw their spear from further away. They no longer had to be close to the animal to take it down.
Another tool that made hunting easier was the bow and arrow. This survival tool was extremely important to the ancient people of Tennessee as well since they used it for both hunting down their food and defense from their enemies. The bow itself was made of wood and the string was often made from animal hide or vegetable fibers. The arrow was made from stone, bone or shell, and was attached to a wooden shaft. Feathers were added to help stabilize the arrow when it was moving through the air. It allowed the hunter to project their arrow from much longer distances than the spear and even with the assistance of the atlatl hook. This tool also needed a large amount of practice to improve the accuracy and efficiency of the shot. During this point in time, those who used the bow and arrow were hunting smaller game like rabbits, deer, and squirrels. With this piece of technology, they could now easily catch and kill these small animals more quickly and with more success. The artifacts you see below are from both the Woodland (lived 1,000BCE-1,000CE) and Mississippian (lived 1,000CE-1,500CE) Native people. These eras ushered in a time of great development of their culture and organization of their society. They established fortified towns, they became mound builders, and created art and pottery. All of the things left behind by them have been a rich resource for archaeologists and historians today.
Bow, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Arrow fragment with a feather attached, found in Grundy County, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
BCE – “Before Common Era”
Ice Age - a period of colder temperatures that caused a major expansion of glaciers to cover the Earth’s surface, this period lasted millions of years.
Inhabit - to live in or occupy a place or environment.
Nomadic - wandering
Mastodon - a large, extinct, elephant-like mammal.
Ancient - belonging to a very distant past.
Projectile Points - an object that is built to be thrown or projected, such as a spear, dart or arrow; also used as a knife.
Spear - a weapon with a long shaft and pointed tip, used for throwing.
Extinct - a family, group of animals or plants having no living members, no longer in existence.
CE- “Common Era”
Fortified - a place with defensive structures to protect against attacks.
Mound Builders - built by prehistoric, indigenous people of North America who constructed various styles of earthen mounds for religious, ceremonial, burial and upper-class homes.
What four pre-historic cultures lived in Tennessee?
What was one new tool that was developed to help the Native people survive? How did it help?
This passage focused on hunting, but pre-historic cultures didn’t only eat meat. What would be another way of getting food?
The first inhabitants of Tennessee were experts at living off the land. Do you have any survival skills you think would help you survive like they did?
To help you picture the tools you read about above, have a look at these videos!
5.27: Identify the cultures of the major indigenous settlements in Tennessee, including: the Paleo (Coats-Hines Site), Archaic, Woodland (Old Stone Fort, Pinson Mounds), and Mississippian (Chucalissa Indian Village).
6.01: Identify the meaning of time designations and abbreviations used by historians, including: · BC / BCE · AD / CE · Circa (c. or ca), decades, centuries
6.02: Describe the characteristics of the nomadic hunter-gatherer societies, including their use of: · Basic hunting weapons · Fire · Shelter · Tools
6.04: Identify and explain the importance of the following key characteristics of civilizations: C, E, G, H, P · Culture · Government · Religion · Social structure
AH.02: List characteristics typical of hunter-gatherer societies, including their use of tools and fire
Katie Yenna is the Education Outreach Coordinator at the Tennessee State Museum.