Tennessee man’s backyard, where mastodons roamed, added to National Register

Paul Litchy’s backyard at the end of a modern-day Franklin cul-de-sac was once a stomping ground for ice age man and beast.

This week, his backyard became one of 11 places added to the National Register of Historic Places by the state Historical Commission.

An archaeological excavation last fall turned up the bones, artifacts and animal remains that archaeologists now say prove human activity occurred here before 12,000 B.C. Litchy’s property — known as the Coats-Hines site — is one of the two oldest human settlements documented in Tennessee.

But Litchy, a part-time civil and environmental engineering instructor at Vanderbilt University, knew nothing of the land’s historic significance when he bought the property in 1998. Today, he’s low-key about the artifacts, some of which are less than 1/8th of an inch in size.

“They show me a little piece of something or other and I think, ‘So what?’ ” Litchy said, laughing. “I tell them, ‘When you guys are excited, tell me so I can be excited with you.’ ”

The other oldest human settlement in Tennessee is known as the Johnson Site, along the Cumberland River east of Nashville.

Since the first excavations began here in 1977, the property has made archaeologists such as Aaron Deter-Wolf beam because the artifacts show so much about life at the end of the last ice age.
The discovery of the bones last fall means more excavations are ahead for the property. Archaeologists from the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M are planning excavations at the site.

Excavations at the property in 1994 revealed the only known example in the southeastern U.S. of mastodon remains directly associated with human-made stone tools in an undisturbed context, according to Deter-Wolf, state prehistoric archaeologist.

Last fall, archaeologists and students from Middle Tennessee State University turned up human artifacts, pollen samples and more than 1,500 animal bones that can be traced to a variety of species. Ultimately tests on last fall’s samples put early humans at the site before 12,000 B.C.

While the bones and artifacts are important, the Coats-Hines site is nationally significant because it is a rare instance in which archaeologists can show ancient people interacting with animals and their context.

“That’s really the meat of archaeology,” Deter-Wolf said. “It’s the association of the items and not just the items themselves.”

Archaeologists believe there was a pond in Litchy’s backyard where animals were killed by hunters.

Those animals included mastodons — elephant-like creatures related to woolly mammoths. Crews have recovered bones from three mastodons at the site.

“Coats-Hines is extremely important to our understanding of both Tennessee and the Nashville area’s ancient past,” Deter-Wolf said. It “has the potential to provide important new information on initial human migration into North America, the tools these earliest Americans used, the food they ate and how they adapted to the changing environment at the end of the last ice age.”

Litchy’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places doesn’t restrict how he might use his property in the future, though it does provide a measure of protection for the site if there is a project that will use federal funding or licensing, said Claudette Stager, preservation specialist with the state Historical Commission.

Only time will tell if the presence of mastodons in the backyard increases the value of Litchy’s house.

“I’d be surprised,” he said. “I really don’t know.”

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