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Unanswered questions in Tennessee's ancient past

(left) James Polk Center (right) LIDAR of Mound Bottom
(left) James Polk Center (right) LIDAR of Mound Bottom
(left) State of Tennessee (right) William F. Romain, Archaeologist

Until the 1790s the Tennessee River had a Maya Indian name. The Nashville area was the home of an advanced indigenous culture that disappeared before the arrival of European settlers.

When Anglo-American settlers first arrived in the vicinity of Nashville, Tennessee in the late 1700s, they were astonished to find the landscape filled with vestiges of a dense human occupation. It seemed that almost everywhere they dug along the Cumberland and Harpeth Rivers, they encountered stone box graves, town sites, mounds, realistic ceramic statues or fine pottery. There are literally thousands of stone box graves in the Cumberland River Valley.

Until 1763 all of Tennessee had been claimed by France. Before that date, Middle and Western Tennessee had been a terra incognito for Great Britain. In fact, little was known about central Tennessee until the first Anglo-America settlers arrived there in the 1780s. The Chickasaws were the last permanent inhabitants. Some Shawnees may have also lived along the northern sections of the Cumberland River in present day Kentucky during the period of French colonialism.

Tennessee volunteers played the leading military role in both the Chickamauga War and later Creek Redstick War. Nashville’s citizens particularly hated the Upper Creeks. During the Chickamauga War, an Upper Creek army had almost captured Nashville. The Upper Creeks claimed that the whites on the Cumberland River were squatters on their ancestral lands. In the eastern part of Tennessee there was considerable bitterness toward the Chickamauga Cherokees because of numerous massacres of families traveling on isolated roads. Many Tennessee men were also involved with military campaigns against Native tribes living along the Ohio River such as the Shawnee.

Several decades of war caused many Tennesseans to view the indigenous peoples as somewhat less than human. They could not imagine their enemies being the progenitors of what appeared to be an advanced civilization. “Urban myths” developed which placed the Aztecs, Toltecs, Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Egyptians or Lost Tribes of Israel in ancient Tennessee. Strangely enough, even though the original name of the Tennessee River was the Callimaco, an Itza Maya word meaning “House of the King, “no books suggested that the Mayas had ever lived there.

Until the 1790s, most of the Tennessee River was named the Callimaco. The upper Tennessee River was named at various points in Colonial history, the Cusate (Creek) River, the Hogeloge (Yuchi) River or the Cherokee River. Until that time, the Little Tennessee River was called the Tanansi River by North Carolinians, the Tenesee River by South Carolinians, the Talassee River by Creek Indians and the Talicoa River by the Cherokees. The founding fathers liked Tennessee better for their state’s name and so Callimako was changed to Tennessee.

Enter General Gates P. Thruston on the scene. Thruston was a Midwesterner, who commanded Union occupation troops in Nashville during the Civil War. While supervising construction of fortifications, he became aware of the large amount of indigenous art being uncovered. Being a general, he was able to claim the finest art and artifacts for his home. That collection would one day become the core of the Tennessee State Museum’s outstanding Native American artifact collection.

Somewhere during the time of playing a conqueror’s role, Thruston fell in love with Tennessee and a Tennessee belle. He married the belle and made Nashville his lifetime home. He soon became more Tennessean than Jackson, Tennessee barbecued ribs or Stokely-Van Camp beans. During the remainder of the century, Thruston was a leader in Nashville’s cultural renaissance.

Perhaps, Thruston’s greatest achievement was the writing of The Antiquities of Tennessee in 1890. Unlike most books of the 1800s, the text was filled with photographs and drawings of exotic artifacts that seemed far too sophisticated to contemporaries to have been made by American Indians. They belonged in Mexico. The final chapter of Thruston’s book proposed that these artifacts were the product of an advanced indigenous people, who became extinct about a century before the arrival of Anglo-American settlers. Thruston did not have access to radiocarbon dating, so the accuracy of his chronology is even more amazing. However, replicating the “urban myth” of the early 1800s, Thruston labeled the Indian tribes known by early Tennessee settlers as possibly being responsible for the destruction of the advanced civilization.

Tennessee’s Archaeological Museums

The C.H. Nash Museum was founded in 1956 in Memphis. It displays artifacts discovered during the past 70 years at the Chucalissa mound complex. Since 1962, the museum has been operated by Memphis State University. The village has been thoroughly studied by archaeologists at the university and is probably the best understood Native settlement in the state. Exhibits focus on the culture of the Chickasaw Indians, who once occupied much of Tennessee.

Remarkable discoveries made by archaeologists, working for the TVA, culminated in the construction of the Frank H. McClung Museum on the University of Tennessee campus in 1961. Its Native American exhibits focus on the inhabitants of the Upper Tennessee Valley and Great Smoky Mountains. Gates P. Thruston’s Native American artifacts were already on exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum. Political leaders in Tennessee enthusiastically promoted its Native American heritage for tourism during the 1970s.

In 1966 the State of Tennessee purchased the Chumley Estate in Manchester, TN on I-24 between Chattanooga and Nashville. This was the location of an 1800 year old ceremonial enclosure, popularly known as the Old Stone Fort. A modest museum was also constructed there.

In 1974 Pinson Mounds in the western part of Tennessee was made a state park. It is a complex that contains at least 17 mounds plus several ceremonial earthworks.

About that same time, Mound Bottom on the Harpeth River was purchased by Tennessee’s government with the intention of making it a state park. It contains at least 29 mounds and several plazas. Archaeologists have determined that the Mound Bottom town site was first settled around 800 AD. Mound construction and significant town occupation began around 950 AD. Just across the Harpeth River is another large, contemporary town site known as the Pack Site. Why two large towns with somewhat different plans would exist side by side has never been explained. Both towns were abandoned around 1300 AD when a massive drought spread eastward into central Tennessee from the Southwest.

The construction of the new Tennessee State Museum in the James K. Polk Center in Nashville during 1980 marked the “high tide” of enthusiasm for Native American history and archaeology in the state. After 1980, a “we know everything there is to know about Tennessee’s Native Americans” attitude increasingly caused budget cutbacks for archaeological and historical research. This also happened in several other Southeastern states. In Tennessee, the Country Music industry was assumed to be a more powerful draw for tourism dollars.

Mound Bottom never became a state park. The state’s leaders apparently felt that Tennessee had enough Native American themed historic sites. However, tourists are generally unaware that the Nashville area is so rich in archaeological sites. In the 1991, 2001 and 2008-2014 Recessions, budgets and staffs were cut in cultural resource research programs, but never fully restored after the state’s economy strengthened.

Today, relatively few Americans, even in the Nashville area, are aware that the Cumberland River Basin once contained a dense, sophisticated indigenous population. Thruston’s artifact collection is on prominent display in the State Museum, but they are detached from the locations at which they were found. They were excavated without professional archaeological oversight. Many mounds in the Nashville area were destroyed during the 1800s. The booming Nashville Metropolitan Area has spread over many former Native American towns sites. In many cases, it is too late to study these sites.

Academicians have continued to study Tennessee’s past on a diminished funding scale. Great strides have been made in understanding the earliest periods of mankind’s presence in Tennessee. One of the most surprising discoveries is that the Cumberland River Basin probably contained North America’s densest Clovis Period population. It was a hunter’s paradise in which large herds of megafauna, such as mastodons and giant bison grazed along the meadows that paralleled north-central Tennessee Rivers.

Who were the people of the Cumberland River Basin?

While the Tennessee State Museum, McClung Museum, Chucalissa Museum, Old Stone Fort Museum and Pinson Mounds Museum proudly display the finest examples of pre-European art in Tennessee, very little is known about the people, who once occupied the Cumberland and Harpeth River Valleys. Archaeologists have classified their pottery, tools and weapons with English names, but do not know where they came from or where they went.

Standard references often state that the mound builders immigrated to Tennessee from Cahokia Mounds in Southern Illinois, but this is highly unlikely. The square, truncated pyramids, square “post-ditch” houses and the site plan of Mound Bottom are very similar to those of Ocmulgee Mounds National Monument in Macon, GA and very dissimilar to those of Cahokia. Furthermore, mound building and the first post-ditch houses occurred about a century earlier in Mound Bottom than Cahokia.

It was very typical for Maya Commoners to bury their dead in stone box graves. Calimako is an Itza Maya word. However, no artifact is on display in a museum that clearly links an indigenous people in Tennessee to Mesoamerica. The answer to that riddle just may be hiding in the ground in some Tennessee archaeological zone that has yet to have been excavated by professionals.

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