6 December 2008
New insight on Great Smoky Mountains' first residents
Picture a small group of men and women, say 20 to 30 people, cautiously making their way through a dense forest along a small stream, searching for a place to camp for the night and to find food. Roughly 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, that's probably what happened in the land now known as Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina and Tennessee, USA). Such a small cluster of people likely left the first footprints on the Smokies. Back about that time, temperatures in the region began to warm as glaciers retreated northward on the continent. Although no glaciers existed this far south, say geologists, there were pockets of cold that affected the environment. In warmer weather, conifer forests began to disappear, replaced by deciduous trees. Erik S. Kreusch, Great Smoky Mountains National Park archaeologist, said the area began to experience four seasons, with an increase in precipitation. Plants began to move up the slopes. With the arrival of deciduous trees, other plants showed up. There were chestnut trees and acorns from oaks, which could be used for food. Under more hospitable conditions, the animal population began to grow.
The stages of man in the Southeast as well as the Smokies go like this: Paleo-Indian Period, 12,000 to 8,000 BCE.; Archaic Period, 8,000 to 1,000 BCE.; Woodland Period, 1,000 BCE to 1,000 CE; and Mississippian Period, 1,000 to 1540 CE. "Native Americans were in East Tennessee by at least 12,000 years ago," said Jeff Chapman, professor of archaeology and director of the Frank H. McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee, and author of 'Tellico Archeology: 12,000 Years of Native American History.' "With base camps in the river valleys, they undoubtedly ranged into the foothills of the Smokies, but not higher, since these elevations were still basically tundra from the last Ice Age. Evidence of these first Americans in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is scanty at best," he said.
Stone projectile points and tools that have been recovered indicate bands of hunters and gatherers ventured into the park area in search of deer, bear and turkeys, he said. They became skilled archers. "By 7,000 years ago, Native Americans were exploiting all the regions of the Great Smoky Mountains." Archaeological evidence of Native Americans in the Smokies increased over the succeeding millennia, Chapman said. "Settlements, however, continued to be on the floodplains of the river valleys, and the upland areas continued to be used, probably seasonally, for hunting," he said. From the period of about 3,000 years ago, said Kreusch, there's evidence of food storage and use of grinding. By about 1,000 BCE, he said, area men and women were using ceramics, clay pots and pit firing. Horticulture began to play a role in daily life. And from around 1350 onward, he said, there is evidence of trade beads, clay pots and townhouses.
Life for the Cherokee around what is now the North Carolina side of the park changed forever in 1540, when the first Europeans arrived in the form of Hernando de Soto and his soldiers of fortune. After thriving for many millennia, the Indians suddenly were exposed to diseases for which they had no resistance. This had a great effect on the social makeup of the tribes and even brought about the complete disappearance of some pre-historic societies, according to a major study of the park's archaeology, entitled, "Cultural and Historic Resource Investigations of the Ravensford Land Exchange Tract, Vol. I."
Source: Knoxville News Sentinel (30 November 2008)