Everyone likes Hairy Elephants… Mastodons Of The Coats-Hines Site in Cool Springs

If you ask a random person where you would have expected to find ice age (Pleistocene) mega fauna like mastodons, Tennessee probably wouldn’t be at the top of the list. The reality however, is that their remnants have been found as far south as Big Bone Lick State Park in Kentucky where the first specimen was found in 1739, South Carolina, and even in Cool Springs, Tennessee!

In 1977, several large bones were identified during landscaping of a local golf course. A partial skeleton of a single mature female mastodon was recovered by Tennessee Division of Archaeology staff.

Later, in 1994, construction of a subdivision near the golf course by Hines Interest LP resulted in the finding of a well-preserved bone bed of ice age (Pleistocene) material. Excavations led to the identification of several late ice age species… horse, deer, muskrat, as well as the separated spread out remains of another mastodon (a young male), as well as a third mastodon that was found eroding from a bank west of the bone bed, but were not excavated. In addition to the remains, archaeologists identified 34 stone tools including blades, scrapers, gravers, and resharpening flakes in the area of the remains. Examination of the bones of one of the mastodons revealed what appeared to be cut marks on a thoracic vertebra and humerus, the former which was in direct contact with several of the possible flakes that were found, thereby – giving rise to the theory that the marks were a result of butchering by paleoindian hunters, and specifically efforts to remove the dorsal muscles along the backbone. The geology of the site was originally interpreted as presenting a shallow pond environment, and dating of organic sediments around and above the mastodon bones showed a range of between approximately 12,000-10,000 BC.

1995 Mastodon B, Image Courtesy of the Tennessee Division Of Archaeology
1995 Mastodon B, Image Courtesy of the Tennessee Division Of Archaeology
1995 Mastodon B, Image Courtesy of the Tennessee Division Of Archaeology

When the excavation was complete, the site was back-filled into what became the backyard of a home in the associated subdivision.

Tennessee Division of Archaeology staff occasionally reinspected the stream drainage, but excavations didn’t occur again until 2008 when efforts were made to recover several bones fragments from a third mastodon, which still resided in the bank. Due to the exposure poor preservation, the bones were very fragmented and it was not possible to determine the animal’s species, sex, or age. Later that year, a stone tool and a mineralized fragment of a deer antlers was also found in the stream drainage.  Both had been eroded from their original location, so it could not be determined if they originated from the bone bed.

The Tennessee Division of Archaeology was awarded a Historic Preservation Grant through the Tennessee Historical Commission and National Park Service to conduct additional archaeological testing in 2010 to assess the site’s archaeological integrity and eligibility for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. In doing so, 1582 remains were found including that of a turtle, rodent, deer, large Pleistocene vertebrate, as well as a fragment of a Mastodon tooth. The effort also recovered 11 stone artifacts believed to be blades and flakes from the creation of stone tools.  The full report is included in the Tennessee Archaeology Journal, Volume 5 Fall 2011   Number 2. Due to the presence of these artifacts, the site was assessed as exhibiting archaeological integrity and nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, where it was listed on July 12, 2011 (link).

2010 Testing, Image Courtesy of the Tennessee Division Of Archaeology

Most recently, the site was again examined in 2012 by a team from the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University. That work was presented in a PhD dissertation, a PDF of which can be found here (link). The new examinations provided several fresh interpretations of the site.

From the geological perspective, the A&M examination revealed that instead of the site being a pond environment, stone deposits and soil characteristics indicate that water was carried into the area in “high-energy pulses” as might be found in an open ditch. Also, reexamination of the previously identified stone tools revealed that almost none, had definitive signs of being human-made. Only one or two of the tools found were definitely human-made and there is reason to believe that they may have eroded from more recent archaeological sites up-slope and have been deposited near the Mastodon remains. The Texas A&M investigation also recovered numerous new radiocarbon samples from the site. Those samples returned dates consistently greater than approximately 22,000 years ago, which is well before the presence of humans in the region. Earlier radiocarbon samples form the site are considered less reliable because of the materials which were dated.

Additionally, according to Aaron Deter-Wolf at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, the mastodon bones from Coats-Hines were recently examined by paleontologists working to stabilize and preserve them. The vertebrae is still on display in the McClung Museum in Knoxville and has not been reexamined yet, but they looked at the humerus in December of 2017 and found that all of the marks on its surface have classic signatures of sedimentary abrasion rather than stone tool cutting. According to this assessment, the marks were created as bones washing down a ditch came into contact with natural stone and each other, which fits well with the recent geological assessment by Texas A&M.

Coats-Hines Archaeological Site in 2017

For now, Coats-Hines remains on the National Register of Historic Places and is included in the Tennessee Social Studies curriculum as an example of a Paleoindian site. However, that may change in the future following publication of new analyses informed by a greater range of professional expertise, better technology, and decades worth of new scholarship.

Special thanks to Aaron Deter-Wolf at the Tennessee Division Of Archaeology for providing guidance and the images for this post!

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