First Tennesseans: Who were they?

DURATION: One session



Prehistoric people lived in Tennessee longer than any other culture since that time, including ours today. (Prehistoric means a time before history was recorded in writing.)
The first inhabitants entered what became Tennessee more than 12,000 years ago. During that time, they slowly changed the way they lived by developing new weapons, tools, customs, and ways to obtain food.
There were four distinct prehistoric Indian cultures in Tennessee. These were known as the Paleo-Indians, Archaic Indians, Woodland Indians, and the Mississippian Indians. Together they are recognized as the first Tennesseans.

Guiding Question:

  • How did the four prehistoric cultures in Tennessee differ from each other and from today’s society?


1.      Students will research the first Tennesseans and learn about their cultures.
2.      Students will create a timeline of the first Tennessean cultures.


  • Have students write a journal account from a day in the life of a prehistoric Native American. What would their day be like? What might some of their chores or activities consist of? What might they eat? How would they spend their free time?


Session 1: Who lived in Tennessee?
1.      Divide students into four groups and assign each group one of the prehistoric cultures. 
2.      Have the students examine the paintings found on the website.
3.      Have students list identifying cultural characteristics. (Ex: hunting methods, housing, tools, agriculture, social structures
4.      As a class, create a timeline, based on the information that the groups have discovered.


  • Have students complete the First Tennessean crossword (pdf)


  • 4.1.01 Understand the diversity of human cultures.
  • a. Describe cultures of Native American tribes.
  • 4.1.spi.1. identify pre-Colonial Native American groups (i.e., Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Aztec, Mayans, Olmec, Mississippi Mound Builders).
  • 4.2.01b. Describe how Native Americans in Tennessee and the Western Hemisphere met their basic economic needs
  • 4.2.02a. Explain the economic patterns of various early Native American groups in Tennessee and the Western Hemisphere.
  • 3.01 Understand how to use maps, globes, and other geographic representations, tools, and technologies to acquire, process and report information from a spatial perspective.
  • 5.01 Identify the ancient civilizations of the Americas.
  • 4.5.01 Identify the ancient civilizations of the Americas.
  • a. Identify the ancient civilizations of the Americas at the time of European arrival.
  • b. Explain the cultures of the Western Hemisphere's native peoples prior to European contact