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Of Caves and Shell Mounds

Of Caves and Shell Mounds

by Kenneth C. Carstens, Patty Jo Watson, Gail E. Wagner, David H. Dye, Nicholas P, Herrmann

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Ancient human groups in the Eastern Woodlands of North America were long viewed as homogeneous and stable hunter-gatherers, changing little until the late prehistoric period when Mesoamerican influences were thought to have stimulated important economic and social developments. The authors in this volume offer new, contrary evidence to dispute this earlier assumption,


Ancient human groups in the Eastern Woodlands of North America were long viewed as homogeneous and stable hunter-gatherers, changing little until the late prehistoric period when Mesoamerican influences were thought to have stimulated important economic and social developments. The authors in this volume offer new, contrary evidence to dispute this earlier assumption, and their studies demonstrate the vigor and complexity of prehistoric peoples in the North American Midwest and Midsouth. These peoples gathered at favored places along midcontinental streams to harvest mussels and other wild foods and to inter their dead in the shell mounds that had resulted from their riverside activities. They created a highly successful, pre-maize agricultural system beginning more than 4,000 years ago, established far-flung trade networks, and explored and mined the world's longest cave—the Mammoth Cave System in Kentucky.

Contributors include:
Kenneth C. Carstens, Cheryl Ann Munson, Guy Prentice, Kenneth B. Tankersley, Philip J. DiBlasi, Mary C. Kennedy, Jan Marie Hemberger, Gail E. Wagner, Christine K. Hensley, Valerie A. Haskins, Nicholas P. Herrmann, Mary Lucas Powell, Cheryl Claassen, David H. Dye, and Patty Jo Watson

Editorial Reviews

Fifteen archeologists and anthropologists present new findings regarding prehistoric peoples in the North American Midwest and Midsouth. The essays dispute earlier assumptions about these groups, revealing a more sophisticated social system which began 4,000 years ago and extended itself in trade networks and exploration of the Mammoth Cave. The new information results from archeological studies made in the Mammoth Cave area, radiocarbon work, and shell mound bioarcheology conducted along the Green River in Kentucky. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
From the Publisher
"Watson's contributions to interdisciplinary research of the cave and shell mound sites of the Green River region deserve celebration and these papers, covering topics ranging from prehistoric mining to health, are testimony to her positive influence." —American Antiquity

"Some archaeological projects have lots of money and personnel. Other projects go along on a shoestring, supported not by money but by the dedication of the individuals involved. In such cases, it may take longer to produce results, but what is done reflects the commitment and long-term reflection of the participants. This book is an example to archaeologists, showing how much can be accomplished and how well it can be done, even on a shoestring. New interpretations and data cover a wide range of topics, especially bringing new light on Archaic period lifeways in the Midsouth." Jon Muller, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale

"An excellent multidisciplinary work. I was amazed how closely linked the riverine areas of the southeast are with regard to age utilization, location of sites, and types of resources exploited. Archaeologists will benefit greatly from this volume. It is a well-deserved tribute to Patty Jo Watson whose contributions to cave archaeology, shell mound archaeology, and origins of plant domestication are unparalleled in North American archaeology." —Barbara Purdy, University of Florida

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Of Caves and Shell Mounds

By Kenneth C. Carstens, Patty Jo Watson

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1996 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8342-8



Cheryl Ann Munson

Whether it is called the Central Kentucky Karst, west-central Kentucky, or the western coalfields of Kentucky, the region under study is archaeologically best known simply for the Green River drainage of Kentucky — and principally for the shell mound and cave sites in the central portion of this drainage.

My view of the chapters in this volume and of Green River archaeology is mostly idiosyncratic, that of an archaeologist looking in from an adjacent region. Like most "outsiders" seeking information for related research, much of what I have learned about the archaeology of the Green River region has come from presented papers and published articles. But in limited ways, I have had the chance to be directly involved in Green River archaeology, and this gives me a special perspective on the course of research over the last several decades. One study involved recent surveys in Salts and Mammoth caves with Patrick Munson, Ken Tankersley, and others and the opportunity to carry out fieldwork with Patty Jo Watson (Munson et al. 1989). Although this work grew out of research questions developed from investigations in Wyandotte Cave, Indiana (P. Munson and C. Munson 1990), it led to reconsideration of previous studies and to new observations and interpretations concerning the materials, procedures, and antiquity of the prehistoric mining of cave minerals in the Green River region. My other research was a series of surveys and test excavations of open-air sites in a section of bottomlands and uplands along the lower Green River, near its junction with the Ohio. This was a cultural resource management project conducted in 1987 and 1988 for an Indiana coal mining company. Because the lower Green River section is archaeologically little known in comparison with the central section, I reviewed the literature and unpublished records for the better known central section and became more familiar with the work of Patty Jo Watson and other researchers. Perhaps for this reason, Ken Carstens asked me to be a discussant at a symposium on Green River archaeology held at the 1989 Southeastern Archaeological Conference. The essays presented then make up most of the chapters in this volume.

The 1989 symposium, titled "Twenty-six Years along Kentucky's Green River," was held (coincidentally) 26 years after Howard Winters began a reconsideration of the wealth of previous descriptive work conducted by William Webb (1946, 1950a, b) and others during the New Deal era at Green River shell mound sites. Winters's (1963, 1968, 1974) new views of Late Archaic settlement models and trade cycles stimulated many archaeologists. At the same time, Patty Jo Watson initiated work along Green River that has led to greater insight on many topics. The years of her involvement in cave and shell mound research from 1962 to the present represent three phases of research. Each phase has had a different perspective, but all reflect Watson's approaches to understanding the past.

The first decade was focused on the archaeology of Salts and Mammoth caves. Watson (chapter 14) says that this work began simply and with an emphasis on "time-space systematics." Probably so, but the basic approach of what, where, and when were quickly expanded to include why. Although researchers discerned much about prehistoric cave exploration and the extraction of minerals, they early recognized the importance of the cave environment for producing direct evidence about human subsistence and early horticultural economies. Soon anthropologists with other specialties (e.g., ethnobotany) and scientists in other fields (e.g., palynology) joined Watson to explore the potential of the well-preserved cave deposits more fully. In addition, they applied the then-new technique of flotation long before it became widely used to recover carbonized seeds and other small-scale remains.

Monographs on the archaeology of Salts and Mammoth caves (Watson, ed., 1974; Watson et al. 1969), along with a host of other contributions by various scholars, represent the culmination of this first phase of Green River research. The researchers established that the Early Woodland cavers — who procured salts and other minerals during seasonal forays — were indeed horticulturalists. In the fall, Early Woodland peoples consumed seeds of cultigens then believed to be of tropical origin (squash/gourd), seeds of native cultigens (including sunflower, chenopod, and sumpweed), and hickory nuts. Pollen analysis revealed that in late spring/summer, these fall-harvested plant foods were also eaten as stored products, along with ripening may grass seeds and various fruits.

The second phase of research, from 1972 to 1982, was directed toward pre–Early Woodland economies and the origins of the plant food subsistence profile seen in the cave deposits. This required a move outside Salts and Mammoth caves to known sites of the antecedent Late Archaic of the Green River. Bill Marquardt joined Watson, and their work became known as the "Shell Mound Archaeological Project," or SMAP (Marquardt 1972a, b, 1974; May 1982). Research outside the caves also involved survey and testing of pre– and post–Early Woodland sites in the immediate karst region (Carstens 1974, 1980). Watson and Marquardt conducted a series of new excavations in the Carlston Annis and Bowles shell mounds. Additional specialized studies expanded the research program. Geoarchaeology, chert sources, microstratigraphy and site formation processes, reconstruction of paleoenvironments, site distribution modeling, and assessment of occupational seasonality were incorporated into the SMAP, adding greatly to studies of chronology, artifacts, and plant and animal remains. Other researchers at this time fixed new attention on the Green River shell mound human skeletal series, which were collected during the New Deal era. Their analyses of the curated collections brought new insights on paleodemography, paleopathology, and paleonutrition (see chapters 10 and 11).

The second phase of Green River research, although more directly focused on a central theme and involving more data categories than the first, did not produce all the desired results. Among the sought-after early cultigens, squash was identified in several excavated shell mounds and sunflower in one, but the Late Archaic deposits of the central Green River lacked evidence on early cultivation of native species of chenopod, maygrass, and sumpweed, producing instead an abundance of remains of wild (or moderately tended) plant foods dominated by hickory nuts.

Concurrent with the SMAP and other second-phase Green River research, a substantial amount of work took place on Middle Archaic, Late Archaic, and Early Woodland sites elsewhere in the Midwest and Midsouth: at Koster, Napolean Hollow, Pabst, Carrier Mills, and other sites in Illinois, at numerous sites in the Normandy Reservoir and in the Little Tennessee River drainage in Tennessee, and at Cloudsplitter Rockshelter in Kentucky. Smaller-scale investigations took place at Late Archaic burned-rock midden sites and other open sites at Patoka Lake and Lake Monroe in southern Indiana. Although these studies showed the importance of hickory nut procurement during the first five millennia B.C., they produced evidence of various early cultigens at different times and in different places. No single, broad geographic pattern of early horticultural trends emerged, leading recent reviewers to see "generally parallel, but distinct co-evolutionary histories for native cultigens" (B. Smith 1987:37) or "multiple pathways" to plant food production (Fritz 1990).

Various results of the second phase of Green River research were presented at symposia in 1979 held at a meeting of the Society for American Archeology and at the Southeastern Archaeological Conference. Other results have been published as articles or incorporated in dissertations, but much is soon to come out as a series of edited papers (Marquardt et al., eds., in prep.). Questions about early horticulture along Green River remain important, as do the only slightly better known whats, whens, and whys for other regions. Indeed, the SMAP narrowed the chronological window for these questions by producing a suite of radiocarbon dates. As a result, we now know that questions about early agriculture along Green River must address the period bracketed by the Late Archaic and Early Woodland, which is sometimes referred to as the "Terminal Archaic," 2000 to 1000 B.C.

The third phase of Green River study, beginning in the early 1980s and continuing to the present, has involved new researchers and broader research themes, but also efforts by individuals and agencies to protect and manage cultural resources. Beyond their shared geographic focus, these investigations are linked in many cases by specialist studies and a renewed concern with time-space systematics — the empirical approach employed so successfully in Watson's first phase of work. Some studies (e.g., Haskins 1995; Haskins and Herrmann 1989) expand on the attention given to the curated New Deal era collections, whose research value has recently been assessed and enhanced (Milner and Smith 1986a, b, 1988). Other studies target previously uninvestigated types of sites, such as burned-rock (or dark earth) middens, which are being included in models of river valley settlement (Hensley 1994) or are directed toward archaeological resource protection (e.g., the Shell Mound Archaeological District, National Register of Historic Places [Hockensmith, Sanders, and Pollack 1985]). Still others highlight new problems in the traditional research settings, a back-to-the-caves and back-to-the-shell-mounds approach (e.g., Haskins 1988; Hensley-Martin 1986; P. Munson et al. 1989).

It is hard for me to predict the course of future research along the Green River (and a new phase of study would probably not be immediately recognized by an outsider), but I am especially optimistic on one front. The steps taken by Charles Niquette (1984), Watson, and others to protect archaeological sites in the central Green River drainage from destruction due to coal mining have helped to bring about a required program of archaeological assessment and mitigation of mine impacts. Previously, mining consumed vast tracts in the Green River drainage with no attention to archaeological resources, but now thousands of acres in the hinterlands and the tributary drainages are being investigated, and some significant sites have become the subject of detailed excavations (e.g., Niquette 1991; Schenian 1987, 1988, 1990; Sussenbach et al. 1990). Such efforts should allow archaeologists to develop a fuller picture of human adaptation in the region by making it possible to integrate the wide array of sites found on the landscape with the better known shell mounds and cave sites.

Although many third-phase studies are still in progress, initial research results have begun to appear in dissertations, presented papers, and published articles. Other results make up chapters in this book. Each chapter was stimulated in some way by the work of Patty Jo Watson; together they provide a tribute to the enduring — and continuing — contributions of her Green River research.


Toward Building a Culture History of the Mammoth Cave Area

Kenneth C. Carstens

The Central Kentucky Karst is located primarily in south-central Kentucky's Mississippian Plateau physiographic region. This is an area consisting of deeply bedded limestones and associated karst (including cave) features. The region extends north into Indiana, south into Tennessee, and west to the Kentucky portion of the Cumberland River; it lies south of the western coal field region (Quinlan 1970). Within the north-central area of the Central Kentucky Karst is Mammoth Cave National Park, a region of about 21,342 ha. The region has long been known primarily for containing the world's longest cave system, but for several decades the professional archaeological community has also been aware of important prehistoric organic materials in the Central Kentucky Karst (Carstens 1980; Watson 1966; Watson, ed., 1974; Watson and Carstens 1975, 1982; Watson et al. 1969). Between 1973 and 1975 I conducted archaeological investigations in and around Mammoth Cave National Park to locate a temporal sequence of rockshelter/cave vestibule sites collectively spanning the prehistoric culture history of that archaeological region. My work (Carstens 1974, 1975a, b, 1976, 1980; Watson and Carstens 1982), now supplemented and complemented by Prentice (1987b, 1988, 1989, 1994), was important because it was the first since Nels C. Nelson (1917, 1923) to provide information about prehistoric economies giving rise to Archaic and Woodland horticultural activities in this karstic region.

Among earlier accounts of the prehistory of the Mammoth Cave area are writings by Rafinesque (1824) and various reports of "mummified" (actually desiccated) Indians (Meloy 1971) from several surrounding caves. Rafinesque's 1824 entry "shellmounds along Green River and mummies in caves" both highlighted and foretold of future archaeological studies for the region.

The first detailed reporting of cultural resources from the Mammoth Cave area were foreshadowed by Col. Bennett Young (1910), who wrote what might best be described as a "guide" to the antiquities of Kentucky. But it was the massive collections of organic and inorganic prehistoric artifacts obtained from Salts Cave by F. W. Putnam for the Peabody Museum and materials donated to the American Museum of Natural History by John Nelson, Mammoth Cave guide, that brought about the first systematic archaeological study of the Mammoth Cave region by Nels C. Nelson between 1916 and 1923.

Nels C. Nelson was the first person to conduct and report results of archaeological surface studies and excavations in the Mammoth Cave area (1917, 1923). Known primarily for his excavations in the Vestibule of Mammoth Cave, Nelson obtained additional collections for the American Museum of Natural History by conducting surface reconnaissance and excavations throughout the area of present-day Mammoth Cave National Park.

Unfortunately, Nelson's work was largely ignored by fellow archaeologists. Even the additional discovery of another "mummy" in 1935 (Meloy 1971; Pond 1935, 1937) added but short-lived interest to the significant archaeological potential of the Mammoth Cave area. In retrospect, it might have been disinterest in the cave archaeology of the Mammoth Cave region that contributed to preserving some sites throughout the area. Archaeological methods of the 1920s to 1950s often included total site excavation.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s Douglas W. Schwartz conducted a series of studies in Mammoth Cave National Park and vicinity for the federal government (Schwartz 1958a-h, 1960a, b, 1965, 1967; Schwartz and Hanson 1961; Schwartz and Sloan 1958, 1960a, b; Schwartz, Sloan, and Hanson 1960). Schwartz inventoried previously reported sites (i.e., C. Moore 1916; Nelson 1917; Funkhouser and Webb 1928; Young 1910), surveyed portions of major trunk passages within Mammoth Cave for archaeological materials, reported previously unrecorded sites, and test-excavated several sites located in the Nolin and Rough River areas north of the park.

In spite of the aforementioned work, no chronicle of the culture history for the park region had been developed prior to Watson's work in the late 1960s (Watson, ed., 1974; Watson et al. 1969). According to Watson (ed. 1974), her work during the early 1970s in the Mammoth Cave area had two major purposes. She wished to describe systematically and to explain the aboriginal utilization of the cave system and to document the prehistoric diet of the Late Archaic and Early Woodland cave explorers as preserved within human paleofecal specimens from that cave system (Watson, ed., 1974: xv). It was Watson's intent to gather data bearing on the development of horticulture that would help answer important questions anthropologists ask about the origin of food production and its role in cultural evolution. More specifically, Watson wanted to know what sort of local economy gave rise to the horticulture and whether it developed indigenously or as a result of ideas or seeds derived from elsewhere (ibid.).

Having apparently documented the presence of cucurbit and other early horticulture through excavations on nearby Archaic Green River shell-mounds (Crawford 1982; Marquardt 1972a; Marquardt and Watson 1974, 1976; Watson 1985b) and through excavations and collections from within the Flint-Mammoth Cave system (Watson, ed., 1974; Watson, et al. 1969), Watson's research group wanted to understand the cultural context within which plant domestication originated and the impact it may have had on indigenous populations of the Central Kentucky Karst. In 1974 I began to gather data to construct a culture history of the Mammoth Cave region that would examine prehistoric economies diachronically, thereby attempting to answer some of the questions posed by Watson's research (Watson, ed., 1974:xv).


Excerpted from Of Caves and Shell Mounds by Kenneth C. Carstens, Patty Jo Watson. Copyright © 1996 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Meet the Author

Kenneth C. Carstens is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Murray State University Anthropology Program and Archaeology Service Center. Patty Jo Watson is Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis.

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