Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Gerald F. Schroedl

Committee Members

Walter E. Klippel, David A. Etnier, Paul W. Parmalee


Shells of terrestrial snails and bones of small vertebrates such as toads, frogs, shrews, and mice are often recovered from pit features on archaeological sites in eastern North America. Attempts by archaeologists to reconstruct human subsistence behavior are impeded by an inability to determine whether these small animal remains represent cultural refuse or natural entrapment. An exploratory experimental program aimed at mitigating this dilemma was conducted along the Tennessee River near Knoxville, Tennessee from May 1985 to June 1986. The goals of this experimental program were to determine (1) the causes of natural entrapment of animals in pits, (2) the spatial and physical characteristics of remains of small animals trapped in pits, and (3) the seasonal and climatological variability of small animal occurrences in pits.

Fifteen cylindrical pits measuring 75 cm in diameter by 75 cm deep were excavated on the experimental site and were varied according to content, the presence or absence of a pit covering, and clearing of the pit margin. In addition, two pits were gradually filled with soil and refuse and then reexcavated at the end of the entrapment experiment. Weekly observations of vertebrate trappings and biweekly observations of land snail abundance in pits were made.

During the 378 day experiment, at least 267 vertebrates were trapped and 811 terrestrial snails were encountered in pits. Vertebrates included seven species of amphibians, six species of reptiles, one bird, and eight species of mammals.

The experimental program provided the basis for making predictions about the archaeological record of the natural entrapment of small animals in pits on sites in eastern North America. Most important among these are the following:

1. Remains of entrapped small vertebrates, if preserved, will tend to occur in deeper pit features that remained open after their abandonment and during their filling, and primarily in the lower levels of those features.

2. shells of naturally introduced terrestrial snails, if preserved, will occur on pit walls and floors and floors and between depositional zones.

3. Remains of entrapped cold-blooded animals will usually occur only in pits that were open during warm seasons.

4. Remains of entrapped mice will be more abundant in deep open pits that contained seeds or other vegetable materials attractive to mice.

5. Remains of entrapped small animals, especially land snails, will be more abundant in pits that were surrounded by vegetation or debris.

Small animal remains from pit features on five late prehistoric and early historic Native American village sites in eastern North America were studied with reference to the experimental entrapment data. Conclusions drawn are that most of the small animal remains in pits on these sites represent natural entrapment, and that the pits were open to receive these animals at least in spring and summer. In addition, the former contents and environmental settings of pit features are predicted from the kinds and numbers of small animals represented.

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