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 known as the Paleo-Indians, Archaic Indians, Woodland Indians, and the Mississippian Indians. Together they are recognized as the first Tennesseans.
To understand their cultures we must depend on archaeology. Archaeology is the study of ancient people’s lives and cultures. The people who study archaeology are called archaeologists. These Indian groups did not have a written language. Therefore, archaeologists study the artifacts they left behind to understand things about their life.
These first Tennesseans had rich and complex cultures. They were the first people to use Tennessee’s rivers, valleys, and fields. They were the first hunters in Tennessee. They were the first inventors, the first pottery makers, the first artists, and even the first farmers. They were Tennessee’s first people. Their cultures deserve understanding.
What was Tennessee like when they lived here? What did they live in? How did they hunt? Did they play games? Where did they live in Tennessee? To find the answers to these questions, follow the links in this section.
- Painting entitled, “The Mastodon Hunt.” This painting was created by Carlyle Urello. It shows a mastodon trapped in the mud while men attack it with spears. Tennessee State Museum Collection, 95.94.1
- Painting of an archaic village. This painting shows numerous people engaged in a variety of activities including food preparation and butchering an animal. Illinois State Museum
- Painting of a woodland village. This painting shows numerous people engaged in a variety of tasks such as carrying baskets, cultivating plants, and constructing a burial mound. Illinois State Museum
- Painting entitled, “Mississippian House Construction.” This painting was created by Carlyle Urello. It shows two completed dwellings and another still under construction. A man is shown applying mud to the exterior of one dwelling, while a woman is shown mixing mud. Other women are shown preparing food, carrying grass bunches to be added to roof of the dwelling, and making a cane mat. Tennessee State Museum Collection, 95.94.8
- Photograph of archeologist, Dr. Charles H. Nash. This photo was taken in 1959 at the Chucalissa Indian Museum at T. O. Fuller State Park near Memphis. It shows Dr. Nash seated inside a model burial chamber. Tennessee State Library and Archives
First Tennesseans >>