Beyond palisades: The nature and frequency of late prehistoric deliberate violent trauma in the Chickamauga reservoir of east Tennessee

Am J Phys Anthropol. 2003 Aug;121(4):303-18. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.10232.


Based on the presence of palisades and an iconography suggesting a warrior elite, warfare is presumed to be endemic in the Late Mississippian period (AD 1200-1600) of the southeastern United States. Warfare is theorized to play a vital role in the cycling of chiefdoms. However, apart from a few exemplary cases that display double-digit frequencies, very little direct (i.e., skeletal) evidence of violent trauma has dovetailed with the archaeological presumptions of warfare. Eight sites from the Chickamauga Reservoir of east Tennessee were examined for skeletal evidence of deliberate violent trauma. Violent trauma was anticipated because these sites are in close proximity and consist of two adjacent, sociopolitically distinct, and temporally overlapping phases: Dallas (AD 1300-1600) and Mouse Creek (AD 1400-1600). In addition to small, round, nonlethal ectocranial blunt-force trauma (BFT) on the frontal and upper parietal bones, inflicted projectile points and scalping were identified. The low total trauma frequency in the Dallas sample (3.86%, n = 259) is consistent with emerging evidence from east and west Tennessee Late Mississippian data, but significantly different from Mouse Creek (8.06%, n = 273). The proportion of nonlethal cranial BFT in the collective Chickamauga sample is large and at odds with the Tennessee River Valley comparative literature. Based on other bioarchaeological literature, this pattern suggests intragroup violence, but not face-to-face ritual contests. It is better explained as interpersonal conflict resolution along codified lines. This is consistent with southeastern ethnohistoric data and may explain the more frequent cranial BFT in the less stratified Mouse Creek phase, which likely would not have had an overarching civil authority.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology, Physical
  • Craniocerebral Trauma* / pathology
  • History, Ancient
  • Humans
  • Indians, North American*
  • Paleopathology
  • Parietal Bone / injuries*
  • Tennessee
  • Violence*
  • Warfare