Pleistocene Fish of the Tennessee River System

Many Italians like to celebrate Christmas Eve with the feast of the 7 fishes.  I’m not Italian, but I like to eat seafood during the holiday season too, though my immediate family is small, and we enjoy the feast of the 2 fishes.  I wonder what species would’ve composed a feast of fishes for Paleo-Indians when they first entered the Tennessee River Valley.  Fish populations were much higher in the pristine pellucid waters of all southeastern rivers before man began destroying the environment, but the composition of species is poorly known because fish remains that old are rarely preserved.  A new study of fish remains excavated from Bell Cave partially unveils this mystery.  Bell Cave in Colbert County, Alabama overlooks the Tennessee River and floods periodically stranded fish inside the cave from ~13,000 calendar years BP-~30,000 calendar years BP.  Predators carried fish into the cave as well.  Scientists collected vertebrate bones from this cave between 1984-1987, but no one identified the fish remains and published the data until 2016.  This study also catalogued fish remains from other sites near the Tennessee River including Baker Bluff Cave, Beartown Cave, Guy Wilson Cave, Cheekbend Cave, Dust Cave, Little Bear Cave, Appalachian Caverns, and Saltville.

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Map of the Tennessee River.

The authors of this study identified 41 taxa and 38 species that lived in the Tennessee River during the late Wisconsin Ice Age.  The number of species they identified is a subset of the population that actually swam in the river because, by chance, many species just never got trapped in the cave or were too decayed to be identified.  This is especially true for smaller species.  Almost all of the species they identified still live in the Tennessee River system today, but there are 3 exceptions.  Northern pike (Esox lucius) no longer naturally occurs this far south, although man has introduced this species into some bodies of water.  (Muskellunge, a related species, surprisingly still occurs in the Tennessee River.  Fossil evidence suggests they were fairly common here during the Ice Age.)  Northern madtom (Noturus stigmosis), a small species of catfish, also no longer occurs this far south. The harelip suckerfish (Moxostoma lacerum) became extinct during the late 19th century.  This species required very clear water with gravel bottoms, but deforestation and agriculture caused erosion that muddied its spawning grounds.  Pleistocene rives were clear enough for this species.

Image result for northern pike

Northern pike.

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Northern madtom.

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Harelip sucker.

Rock bass were the most commonly represented fish from the Centrarchidae family catalogued in this study, but curiously they found not a single specimen of sunfish.  Bluegill sunfish are 1 of the most common fish in the Tennessee River today because they thrive in manmade reservoirs, but that kind of environment was rare before man began impounding rivers.  Sunfish probably lived in oxbow lakes that weren’t close enough to caves where their remains could’ve been preserved.

A Paleo-Indian trapping fish in the Tennessee River could’ve enjoyed a feast of 7 fishes consisting of sturgeon, northern pike, walleye, sauger, freshwater drum, bullhead catfish, and eel.  These were probably the best tasting fish available to them then.

Reference:

Jacquemin, S.; J. Ebersole, W. Dickinson, G. Ciampaglio

“Late Pleistocene Fishes of the Tennessee River Basin: an Analysis of a Late Pleistocene Freshwater Fish Fauna from Bell Cave (site Acb-2) in Colbert County, Alabama”

Peer J 2016

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One Response to “Pleistocene Fish of the Tennessee River System”

  1. ina puustinen-westerholm Says:

    Thinking our family would have a sturgeon feast..and smoked ell is tasty..but we have never gotten ‘comfy’..with the drying of them..hanging around the sauna..in finland. Nope..no way. That small, second photo..looks like what the first peoples used for..oil fish..but..do not know if it is one. The cave..having..given up fish bones..for the..edification..of those of us now..very kind of them. Thank you.

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