Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. George M. Crothers


Though some researchers have argued that the Big Barrens grasslands of Kentucky were the product of anthropogenic land clearing practices by Native Americans, heretofore, this hypothesis had not been tested archaeologically. More work was needed to refine chronologies of fire activity in the region, determine the extent to which humans played a role in the process, and integrate these findings with the paleoenvironmental and archaeological record. With these goals in mind, I conducted archaeological and geoarchaeological investigations at Crumps Sink in the Sinkhole Plain of Kentucky. The archaeological record and site formation history of Crumps Sink were compared with environmental and archaeological data from the Interior Low Plateaus and Southern Appalachian Mountains for an understanding of how the site fits into the larger story of human-environmental interactions in the Eastern Woodlands. Based on the data recovered, I argue that through land burning Archaic hunter-gatherers were active managers of ecosystems to a greater degree than previously acknowledged.

Excavations at Crumps Sink revealed stratified archaeological deposits spanning the late Middle Archaic to Terminal Late Archaic periods. Radiocarbon dates and an analysis of projectile point typologies provided information on the chronological and cultural history of the site. Magnetic susceptibility, loss-on-ignition, plant available phosphorous, and soil micromorphological analyses were conducted to examine landform dynamics in response to environmental change and to trace the anthropogenic signature created by human activities at the site. Masses of lithic debitage, animal bone, and burned sediment nodules per ten-cm-level provide an indication of human occupation intensity and shifting activities over time. Radiocarbon dates were used to reconstruct rates of sediment accumulation in the sink. These varying datasets were considered together for a holistic understanding of localized environmental and anthropogenic impacts on the landform.

Between 7200 and 5600 cal. BP, during the Middle Holocene Thermal Maximum and corresponding with the late Middle Archaic period, sediment accumulation was sustained with one identifiable episode of very weak soil development. Background magnetic and chemical signatures in the soils were greater than they were at pre-occupation levels, demonstrating that human activities left a lasting imprint in soils as early as the late Middle Archaic period. Between 5600 and 3900 cal. BP, periods of diminished sedimentation led to more pronounced episodes of soil formation. However, these soil horizons are interposed by pulses of enhanced sediment accumulation. These soil data may signal shifting environmental regimes during the Middle to Late Holocene transition. Between 5600 and 3900 cal. BP scattered plant ash, elevated masses of burned sediment nodules, and pestle fragments in Late Archaic deposits suggest that hunter-gatherers were intensively processing nut mast, potentially in association with early forest clearance and silviculture. Botanical assemblages from a coincident archaeological sequence at the Carlston Annis site in the nearby middle Green River region has demonstrated woodland disturbance and potential silviculture in central Kentucky during this time.

During the Late Archaic and Terminal Late Archaic periods (3900-3000 cal. BP), substantial plant ash deposition occurred in a stratum that accumulated relatively quickly. Very low burned sediment nodule masses in this deposit indicate that combustion features were not common in the immediate vicinity and that elevated frequencies of plant ash were the result of burning on a broader expanse of the surrounding landform. Chronologically, the zone with enhanced plant ash deposition is coeval with previously demonstrated occurrences of increased forest fires, grassland expansion, and a shift to early horticultural economies throughout the region. Soil development occurred after 3000 cal. BP, and this episode of landform stability may have lasted for over two millennia until being capped by sediment accumulation from historic agriculture.

The late Middle Archaic through Terminal Late Archaic data from Crumps Sink demonstrate that hunter-gatherer activities left lasting signatures in soils in Kentucky. The data from the Late Archaic to Terminal Late Archaic periods (ca. 5600-3000 cal. BP) may indicate intentional land burning by hunter-gatherers to create anthropogenic environments, first for silviculture and then for early plant domestication. This forces a rethinking of labor and subsistence systems within hunter-gatherer societies. Thus, if hunter-gatherers were utilizing long-term forest management methods, they were employing a delayed-return economic system relying on labor investment and negotiated understandings about land tenure. Further characterization of the origin of fire management activities will help us to elucidate the nature of incipient indigenous plant domestication in the Eastern Woodlands.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)