M.A. Theses: Joanna Louise Casey, 1987

Prehistoric Exploitation of Unionacean Bivalve Molluscs in the Lower Tennessee - Cumberland - Ohio River Valleys in Western Kentucky

Large heaps of freshwater bivalve shells are a common feature at Archaic sites in many areas of the southeastern United States. However, the distribution of these features is discontinuous and patchy. In the lower Tennessee, Cumberland and Ohio river valleys in western Kentucky, Archaic sites occur, yet none are associated with shell deposits. The purpose of this study is to examine the absence of shellmound Archaic sites from the lower Tennessee, Cumberland and Ohio region.

A review of the environmental requirements of unionids (freshwater bivalve shellfish) and a discussion of the role of shellfish in prehistoric economies indicates that unionids provide prehistoric peoples with a highly seasonal resource of relatively low nutritive value. Samples of shell deposits from six Mississippian (ca 900-1700 bp) sites in the lower Tennessee, Cumberland and Ohio region were examined to assess the prehistoric riverine environment and the cultural orientation toward bivalve shellfish.

Results indicate that even during Mississippian times shellfish collecting was not an important activity in the area and collection episodes were limited to periods of extremely low water when large numbers of unionids were unusually accessible. It is suggested that Archaic peoples in this part of western Kentucky may have been inhabiting riverine sites on a seasonal basis - possibly between late autumn and early spring when high river levels would preclude the procurement of freshwater bivalve molluscs.

It is further suggested that the phenomenon of the "Shellmound Archaic" has been overemphasized in the literature and that shellmound Archaic sites are a response to a specific set of environmental and cultural circumstances. Shellmound Archaic sites occur in areas where unionids are unusually abundant, in areas which provide natural fords, and at the interface of trade routes. Aggregation phases for the purpose of trade or the collection of seasonal resources at these points permitted the prehistoric site occupants to exploit labour-intensive resources such as shellfish.