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Erethizon dorsatum (L.) (American Porcupine) Skeletal Remains from the Charles Church Rockshelter, Watauga County, North Carolina
Thomas R. Whyte

Southeastern Naturalist, Volume 9, Issue 4 (2010): 821–826

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2010 SOUTHEASTERN NATURALIST 9(4):821–826 Erethizon dorsatum (L.) (American Porcupine) Skeletal Remains from the Charles Church Rockshelter, Watauga County, North Carolina Thomas R. Whyte* Abstract - Osseus remains of Erethizon dorsatum (American or Common Porcupine) were recovered by archaeological excavations at the Charles Church Rockshelter site in Watauga County, NC. Two specimens were successfully radiocarbon-dated to between 7670 and 7460 years before present, confirming the presence of Porcupines in the mountains of North Carolina in the middle Holocene. Climatic events and human predation may have led to its extirpation from the southern Appalachians by AD 1000. Introduction Archaeological excavations of Holocene deposits at a small rockshelter overlooking the Watauga River in Watauga County, NC yielded ten specimens identified as Erethizon dorsatum (L.) (American or Common Porcupine). The specimens (Table 1) were found along with archaeological remains such as stone and ceramic artifacts, burnt rocks, carbonized plant remains, human skeletal remains, and other animal remains representing prehistoric, Holocene-age, human activity. Excavations at Charles Church Rockshelter (North Carolina state site number 31WT155) were undertaken by Appalachian State University archaeologists from 2003 through 2007 to salvage evidence prior to intended destruction by private road construction. The rockshelter is in a south-facing *Department of Anthropology, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC 28608; whytetr@appstate.edu. Table 1. Proveniences of Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) remains from Charles Church Rockshelter, Watauga County, NC. Specimen Unit Stratum Depth* 1. L. mandible (fragment) 3E Upper C 1.43 m 2. L. premaxilla (fragment) 2E Upper D 1.72 m 3. R. mandibular M1 (whole) 2E Lower B 1.20 m 4. L. maxillary P4 (whole) 2E Lower B 1.20 m 5. R. mandibular I (fragment) 2E Lower C 1.58 m 6. L. mandibular M? (fragment) 2E Lower A 1.00 m 7. R. maxillary M3 (whole) 1 Lower C 2.00 m 8. L. mandibular M1 (whole) 3E Upper C 1.50 m 9. Molar (fragment) 1 Disturbed Surface 10. Cheek tooth (fragment) 3E Lower B 1.43 m *All depth measurements refer to a permanent datum point on the rockshelter wall above original ground surface. 822 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 9, No. 4 hillside overlooking the Watauga River just upstream from its confluence with Dutch Creek, and immediately downstream from the Town of Valle Crucis (Fig. 1). It is composed of weathered Cranberry Gneiss and has a roughly triangular floor surface of approximately 10 m2 (Fig. 2). Its elevation is 829 m (2720 ft) above mean sea level. Three one-month seasons of excavation revealed a minimum of five distinct strata created by colluvium, anthropogenic deposition, and postdepositional weathering. Excavation of the shelter’s archaeological deposits was horizontally delineated according to a one-meter grid system, extending from the shelter wall to the base of the talus in front (Fig. 2). Vertical space was subdivided according to observable stratigraphic changes and arbitrary subdivisions of 10 cm. All excavated soil was wet-sieved through 6-mm (1/4-inch) and 3-mm (1/8-inch) mesh. Five specimens identified as Porcupine were recovered by 6-mm mesh and five were recovered by 3-mm Figure 1. Detail of USGS Valle Crucis, NC quadrangle map showing the location of Charles Church Rockshelter in Watauga County, NC. 2010 T.R. Whyte 823 mesh. All came from excavation units located within the protected area of the shelter where vertebrate remains were found preserved throughout the stratigraphic profile. The specimens identified as American Porcupine are described and listed in Table 1. The left maxillary P4 with surrounding bone and one cheek tooth fragment recovered from Unit 3E, Lower B exhibit very little occlusal wear and are thus from one or more subadult individuals. The other five cheek teeth are well worn and may, along with the other bones, belong to a single adult. Thus, disregarding context, a minimum of two individuals (one adult and one subadult) is represented. When stratigraphic context is taken into consideration, however, the minimum is expanded to possibly six individuals. Three specimens, the left mandible fragment, a right mandibular M1, and an indeterminate cheek tooth fragment are blackened from exposure to flame—possibly a result of human activity. The remaining specimens may have entered the deposits through natural death or predation by non-human shelter denizens. Two of the specimens, like many artifacts and animal remains recovered, exhibit a coating of calcrete on one or more surfaces. These deposits formed post-depositionally on the undersides of objects within the soil matrix. Three of the larger Porcupine specimens (Nos. 1, 2, and 4 in Table 1) were submitted to Beta Analytic, Inc. for collagen extraction and AMS radiocarbon dating. Specimen No. 4, a left maxillary fourth premolar with surrounding bone, did not yield datable collagen. Specimen No. 1, a carbonized left mandible fragment (Beta sample No. 264673), yielded a conventional radiocarbon age of 6620 ± 50 ybp (calibrated 7570–7460 ybp). Specimen No. 2, a left premaxilla fragment, yielded a conventional radiocarbon age of 6780 ± 50 ybp (calibrated 7670–7580 ybp). Their nearly overlapping radiocarbon ages point to the possibility that they represent an individual Porcupine. Figure 2. Floor plan of Charles Church Rockshelter, Watauga County, NC. 824 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 9, No. 4 In sum, radiocarbon dates indicate middle Holocene (7670 and 7460 ybp) deposition of the Porcupine remains recovered from the Charles Church Rockshelter. The recovery of undatable remains from more recent strata at the site may indicate local survival of the species beyond the middle Holocene. Porcupine in the Southern Appalachians With the exception of Porcupine, vertebrate fauna resulting from anthropogenic activity and thanatocoenosis at Charles Church Rockshelter are typical of the contemporary upland hardwood forest of the southern Appalachian region. Porcupine remains have been recovered from Holocene deposits at several other cave, rockshelter, and open-air sites in the southern Appalachian region (e.g., Barkalow 1961, Benthall 1990, Guilday et al. 1977, Hoffman 1987, Manzano 1986, Mercer 1897, Neotoma Paleoecology Database 2007, Parmalee 1963, Parmalee and Guilday 1965, Weigel et al. 1974), and Porcupines have been observed relatively recently as far south in the Appalachians as western Maryland (Harman and Thoerig 1968). No confirmed historical sightings are reported for North Carolina (Neotoma Paleoecology Database 2007). Furthermore, the Porcupine is not mentioned in native folklore or myth from the southern Appalachians (e.g., Mooney 1970), nor is there a word for Porcupine in the native Cherokee language (Tom Belt, Cherokee Language Instructor, Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC, pers. comm.). Porcupine-quill art and ornamentation among southeastern Native Americans are mentioned by Bartram (Harper 1998) for the Creek, and by Timberlake (King 2007) for the Cherokee; quills were likely imported by way of exchange from native groups farther north (Swanton 1979). Five specimens were recovered from more recent archaeological deposits (2900 to 1800 ybp) at the nearby Eastman Shelter in Sullivan County, TN (Manzano 1986). Dougherty’s Cave in Russell County, VA, yielded four specimens identified as Porcupine, all found in archaeological deposits ranging in age from ca. 6000–2000 ybp (Benthall 1990). Six specimens from the Stanfield-Worley Bluff Shelter in Colbert County, AL were also recovered from early through middle Holocene levels (Parmalee 1963). Two specimens recovered from the Little Bear Creek site, also in Colbert County, AL, were recovered from archaeological deposits dating to approximately 5000–3000 ybp (Barkalow 1961). Fourteen specimens from Russell Cave in Jackson County, AL came from deposits ranging in age from 9000 to only 1500 ybp (Weigel et al. 1974). Specimens reported by Parmalee and Guilday (1965) are from Late Archaic (ca. 4000 ybp) or Early Woodland (ca. 2000 ybp) open-air sites along the Tennessee River in southeastern Tennessee. Human predation is indicated by the contexts in which the specimens were found and the presence of cut marks on the left and right mandibles of one individual (Parmalee and Guilday 1965). 2010 T.R. Whyte 825 Conclusion Taken together, these sites indicate the presence of Porcupine throughout the Appalachians prior to 1000 ybp, with perhaps decreasing numbers after the middle Holocene (ca. 5000 ybp). The hemlock decline in Appalachian forests at approximately 4800 ybp (Delcourt et al. 1998) may have influenced an initial reduction in numbers; hemlocks are crucial to eastern Porcupines for refuge and food (Griesemer et al. 1998). The apparent lack of Porcupine remains on southern Appalachian sites (below Virginia) dating more recently than AD 500 suggests the possible influence of the Medieval Warm period (AD 900–1300) on the extirpation of Porcupine from the region. The evident value of Porcupine quills and meat among recent native North American cultures raises the possibility that prehistoric humans contributed, at least in part, to their demise. Evidence of the first permanent human settlement of the higher elevations of the Appalachian summit dates to the Medieval Warm period (Whyte 2003), suggesting the possibility of over-predation by humans on already stressed Porcupine populations: “Because of the popularity of Porcupine quill work, this large, conspicuous, slow-breeding rodent may have been exterminated by Indians in marginal areas where it was never common” (Parmalee and Guilday 1965:82). Acknowledgments I am indebted to Charles Church for permission to excavate on his property. Research at the Charles Church Rockshelter was funded by the Cratis D. Williams Graduate School and the Department of Anthropology at Appalachian State University. Funding for radiocarbon dating was generously provided by the Appalachian State University College of Arts and Sciences. David H. DeShetler and Matthew D. Spencer assisted in the analysis of archaeofaunal remains from the site. As always, I am indebted to the late Paul W. Parmalee for my training in zooarchaeology. Literature Cited Barkalow, F.S., Jr. 1961. The Porcupine in Alabama archaeological sites. Journal of Mammalogy 42:544–545. Benthall, J.L. 1990. Daugherty’s Cave: A stratified site in Russell County, Virginia. Archeological Society of Virginia Special Publication No. 18, Richmond, VA. 99 pp. Delcourt, P. A., H.R. Delcourt, C.R. Ison, W.E. Sharp, and K.J. Gremillion. 1998. Prehistoric human use of fire, the Eastern Agricultural Complex, and Appalachian oak-chestnut forests: Paleoecology of Cliff Palace Pond, Kentucky. American Antiquity 63:263–278. Griesemer, S., T. Fuller, and R. Degraaf. 1998. Habitat use by Porcupines (Erethizon dorsatum) in central Massachusetts: Effects of topography and forest composition. The American Midland Naturalist 140:271–279. Guilday, J.E., P.W. Parmalee, and H.W. Hamilton. 1977. The Clark’s Cave bone deposit and the Late Pleistocene paleontology of the central Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. Bulletin of Carnegie Museum of Natural History No. 2, Pittsburgh, PA. 87 pp. 826 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 9, No. 4 Harman, D.M., and T. Thoerig. 1968. Occurrence of the Porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum, and the Nutria, Myocastor coypus bonariensis, in western Maryland. Chesapeake Science 9:138–139. Harper, F. (Ed.). 1998. The Travels of William Bartram. University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA. 727 pp. Hoffman, R.W.1987. Taphonomy and zooarchaeology of rockshelters of the Big South Fork Area of the Cumberland Plateau, Tennessee and Kentucky. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN. 206 pp. King, D. 2007. The Memoirs of Lt. Henry Timberlake: The Story of a Soldier, Adventurer, and Emissary to the Cherokees, 1756–1765. Museum of the Cherokee Indian Press, Chapel Hill, NC. 176 pp. Manzano, B.L. 1986. Faunal resources, butchering patterns, and seasonality at the Eastman Rockshelter (40SL34): An interpretation of function. M.A. Thesis. University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN. 217 pp. Mercer, H.C. 1897. The finding of the remains of the fossil sloth at Big Bone Cave, Tennessee, in 1896. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 36(154):36–70. Mooney, J. 1970. Myths of the Cherokee. Johnson Reprint Corporation, New York, NY. 576 pp. Neotoma Paleoecology Database. 2007. US National Science Foundation Geoinformatics Program. FAUNMAP data: 2000–2007. File available online at http:// www.neotomadb.org. Accessed 2 February 2010. Parmalee, P.W. 1963. A prehistoric occurrence of Porcupine in Alabama. Journal of Mammalogy 44:267–268. Parmalee, P.W., and J. E. Guilday. 1965. A recent record of Porcupine from Tennessee. Journal of the Tennessee Academy of Science 41:81–82. Swanton, J.R. 1979. The Indians of the Southeastern United States. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC. 943 pp. Weigel, R.D., J.A. Holman, and A. Paloumpis. 1974. Vertebrates from Russell Cave. Pp. 81–85, In J.W. Griffin (Ed.). Investigations in Russell Cave. Publications in Archeology 13, National Park Service, Washington, DC. 127 pp. Whyte, T.R. 2003. Prehistoric sedentary agriculturalists in the Appalachian Summit of Northwestern North Carolina. North Carolina Archaeology 52:1–19.