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Nathan Baker

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Grant to help archaeologist's study of early Americans

March 8th, 2014 10:54 pm by Nathan Baker

Grant to help archaeologist's study of early Americans

ETSU anthropology professor Jay Franklin shows off an arrowhead in this photo (Photo Contributed)

A grant intended to protect a Middle Tennessee archaeological find will help an East Tennessee State University educator better understand the people who lived in the area thousands of years ago.

Jay Franklin, an archaeologist and ETSU associate professor of anthropology, said a former student, now a Tennessee state park ranger, alerted scientists to the remote site, under a natural rock outcropping high on a bluff in the Upper Cumberland Plateau.

Some 5-foot-deep test pits dug in the rock shelter unearthed primitive stone tools representative of those used more than 11,000 years ago, near the end of the last major ice age.

Franklin said the find was unique because of the relatively high elevation of the shelter and its distance from a water source.

“It’s not that uncommon to find a Paleolithic site in North America, but what I think is interesting is this site is higher in elevation, it’s a thousand feet higher than the valley beneath it,” he said. “Most of the earliest sites in the Americas you find in the lowlands, along major rivers. Nothing about it fits what we know about early Americans.”

The shelter is remarkably undisturbed by amateur diggers, Franklin said, which makes it even more valuable for learning about the lives of its inhabitants through its 10,000 years of use.

“We’ll be interested in learning how it was used in each period,” he said. “Was it used as hunting camps? Was it residential? What made them come up there in this highland area so early in time, when it would have been fairly inhospitable?”

The nearly $12,000 grant, awarded by the National Geographic/Waitt Grant Program, will fund mapping, travel and radiocarbon testing.

Franklin said he, some former students and his colleagues will spend the warm months trying to surmise what the shelter and its artifacts can tell them about the early people.

For the archaeologist, who has spent nearly two decades in similar shelters and cave sites across the plateau searching for a pristine site, the career and personal payoff could be huge.

“For 18 years I’ve been working in the area, and I thought I wouldn’t find rock shelter like this,” he said. “It makes me glad I stuck with it this long.”

In the coming months, Franklin said he and a colleague will analyze the microscopic use wear on some of the tools already found at the site, and could put out a preliminary journal article soon.

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