Frank H. McClung Museum/University of Tennessee
This mural by Greg Harlin shows the Mississippian town of Toqua.

Mysterious Ancient Native Remains Found in Remote Cave

Christina Rose
September 08, 2013

Last spring, Tennessee spelunkers entered a remote cave and came upon the remains of 15 individuals. They immediately went to the police who removed the remains as part of a forensic investigation. The cave is believed to be on land owned by Tennessee Valley Authority.

Once the remains were determined to be ancient Native Americans, TVA contacted archaeologist Tom Maher, who immediately contacted several tribes, including the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, Alabama Quassarte Tribal Town, Cherokee Nation, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, Kialegee Tribal Town, Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, Poarch Band of Creek Indians, Seminole Tribe of Florida, Shawnee Tribe, the Chickasaw Nation, Thlopthlocco Tribal Town of Oklahoma, and the United Keetowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma.

The remains have been identified as Cherokee from the Mississippian period, and are believed to be several hundred years old, before European contact. Certain objects found with the remains helped identify the time period as well as the tribe.

In keeping with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, an announcement was placed in local newspapers, Maher explained. “After we made the primary affiliation of the three Cherokee groups, we have to publicly advertise in the area where the remains were found and also where the tribes were found.”

The announcement states that any federally recognized tribe that may have information to support their own affiliation should contact Thomas Maher through the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Maher said that all of the tribes were in consensus to let the Eastern Band take the lead. “We are now waiting to see if there is anyone who might have knowledge or someone who can provide a counter claim or add information,” Maher said.

Miranda Panther, NAGPRA officer for the Eastern Cherokee Nation, noted that the remains were found in a very rural area in Tennessee and said this points to a need to provide education about NAGPRA to local police departments, who could then proceed differently.

Because of the dry conditions of the cave and the limestone floor, the remains were somewhat well preserved, though in fragments. The police did not immediately determine that they were considered pre-historic before they were removed. “It is hard to know if remains are pre-historic and they need to know where to go to get answers,” she said.

The cave was virtually unknown except for a few geologists and hardy spelunkers who had never before gone deep into the cave. The TVA is a non-profit government organization, which provides low cost electricity for 9 million people in the southeastern states. Mike Bradley, TVA Communications, said the TVA is committed to helping as much as possible, including protection of the area where the remains were found. “We are not sure if we will gate the caves as that could make it worse, it can draw attention.”

The Eastern Cherokee Tribal Historian and Preservation Officer, Tyler Howe, said that cave burials were not unusual between 1050 AD and 1250 AD.  Howe said there were many reasons people were buried in caves, and that the Mississippian Period was a time of community expansion and agriculture.

“It makes it easier to determine who they were,” he said. “They were settling into towns, deeply entrenched in culture. They had priestly chiefs and built mound buildings with very large ceremonial centers.”

Howe said that when the Europeans arrived, it was the height of the Mississippian culture. When the Europeans arrived they encountered the largest towns they had ever seen, and Howe said the Europeans and Spaniards, “fueled by God, Gold, and Conquest” were from such a poor stratified community, “and here there was art everywhere, a very powerful society. There was no concept of the frontier for the Southeastern Americans.  It was a very vibrant, large, system of many towns.”

Regarding the next steps, Panther said, “It is such a sensitive issue dealing with human remains, such a sacred undertaking, our preference is that they will be reburied as close to [the] original location as possible. Our number one concern is security. Our intention is they are secure in perpetuity, as close to where they had been placed by [their] loved ones as possible.”