Site by Bennett Web & Design Co.
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
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;
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
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
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
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
Figure 2. Floor plan of Charles
Church Rockshelter, Watauga
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
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
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
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).
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.
Barkalow, F.S., Jr. 1961. The Porcupine in Alabama archaeological sites. Journal of
Benthall, J.L. 1990. Daugherty’s Cave: A stratified site in Russell County, Virginia.
Archeological Society of Virginia Special Publication No. 18, Richmond, VA.
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
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
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
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.