Cherokee and peoples in mountainous areas of France both were more connected to ‘outside world’ than traditionally thought
Editor’s Note: East Tennessee State University professor Dr. Jay Franklin has spent recent weeks in France, conducting archaeological work in an upland, mountainous area with similarities to Northeast Tennessee. Franklin has been a big part of our series about the Cane Notch site in Washington County. Here, he writes a bit about his work in France.
By Jay Franklin
I have spent most of my career doing prehistoric archaeology in upland areas of Southern Appalachia documenting cultures that otherwise would remain unknown, like the town at Cane Notch. Our work there and at other places in upper East Tennessee has revealed a vibrant culture area heavily populated with towns, villages, and smaller sites in are an area that a lot of researchers thought was a hinterland.
However, I was challenged several years ago to demonstrate in my work that ideas about upland and mountain areas generally being marginal, isolated, and backward are simply not true. Toward that end, I began an exchange program with my friend and colleague, Frédéric (Fred) Surmely and l’université Blaise Pascal in the Auvergne region of France in 2008. The Auvergne essentially corresponds physiographically to the Massif Central, a mountainous area of south central France with high rolling plateaus and former volcanos.
Like Southern Appalachia, the Massif Central has largely been considered isolated, marginal, and the climate too harsh for significant settlements. Some Paleolithic archaeologists even think it was not occupied during the Ice Age because it was glaciated. This is interesting because there are numerous Paleolithic sites here that go back at least 50,000 years. We have documented some of them, in
fact. At Enval, a Paleolithic rock shelter site some 15,000 years old, we have found incredible amounts of stone tools and extinct animal bones (reindeer, horse, bison, etc.). The Ice Age inhabitants made their stone tools from local flint, a beautiful banded flint that is perfectly suited for stone tools. However, perhaps as much as 65 percent of their tools were made from “blonde” flint and other varieties coming from far away. Some flint comes from the center of France some 150 miles away. We have also recovered pierced sea shells made into beads or pendant. These shells had to have come from at least 200 miles away. These “mountain” folks at Enval were connected (much like the protohistoric Cherokees at Cane Notch who also had sea shell beads). Our work here demonstrates two significant things about this highland mountain region: 1) it was heavily populated during the Ice Age, and 2) the inhabitants were not isolated and marginal – they were well connected to the rest of the world (much like the Cherokee inhabitants of Cane Notch in the 15th and 16th century). And nor did the active volcanos in the region during the late Ice Age deter settlement here.
We have also documented several medieval hamlets and sites in the Sancy Mountains of the Auvergne. At Les Yvérats, an 11th century hamlet, we have recorded at seven interconnected structures, all semi-subterranean and all but one made of stone walls. Unlike in England where the Domesday Book contains copious records of the Medieval period, no such document exists in France, especially in the mountains. Sites like Les Yvérats are essentially prehistoric, able to be known only through archaeology. The site is not unique in the region, either. In our surveys, we have recorded hundreds of medieval sites in the region again demonstrating a healthy population in the mountains.
Finally, Fred and I hope to do some cross-cultural studies between the Massif Central and Southern Appalachia. One structure at Les Yvérats is not made from stones but rather a wall trench in which wooden posts were set to then begin wall construction. These are known from the west of France but several centuries later. This may be one of the earliest in all of France. Further, it is very similar to structures constructed by prehistoric Native Americans in Southern Appalachia during the Middle Mississippian period (chronologically corresponding to the Medieval of France).
So, the ultimate goal is to examine the lives and adaptations of upland and mountain peoples globally to dispel stereotypes about mountain people. Unlike what noted ethnologist, John Swanton said about the Cherokees in the 1930s, that they likely lived in the mountains more out of necessity than preference (something he did not document empirically), I counter with a popular saying from Southern Appalachia, “If you’re lucky enough to live in the mountain, you’re lucky enough.” This is something folks have understood from the mountains of France to those of Tennessee (and almost certainly everywhere else).