Lost Worlds: Discovering Past Environments

January 22, 2005–May 22, 2005

As part of the University of Tennessee’s Environmental Semester, the McClung Museum features an exhibition that showcases some of the research conducted by University faculty to reconstruct and better understand the dynamics of past environments. The exhibit illustrates some of the methods and results from a variety of scientific disciplines that provide insight into our world in the past.

From the smallest things can come evidence of big changes. For example, what does the discovery of the bones of Yellow Cheek Voles (tiny rodents) or the recovery of microscopic pollen grains tell us about Tennessee 14,000 years ago? How do tree rings reveal changes in rainfall patterns over time? What was the impact of natural and human caused fire on the forests of the past? Soil is more than dirt—what are some of the secrets that science can extract? The tools and clues used by sleuthing scientists to learn about the past are the focus of this fascinating exhibition.

On entering the exhibition, the visitor is drawn to a nine-foot high reconstruction of the layers in Cheek Bend Cave on the Duck River in Maury County. This “layer cake” of prehistory preserved the bones of animals that lived in the area as early as 15,000 years ago and many are shown in the accompanying displays. Scientists called zooarchaeologists have identified the animals and found that the different animal species in the layers of the cave are good indicators of the changing environment of the Mid-South.

Another scientific technique in studying past environments is palynology—the study of plant pollen. How does the pollen that coats our cars each spring tell us about the past? Thousands of years of pollen “rain” settled in the bottoms of lakes and ponds providing a continuous record of changes in the local vegetation, changes that are both natural and human caused.

Recovered in sediment cores, pollen from both Tennessee and Costa Rica demonstrate substantial human impact on the landscape in the past as people began to raise crops.

Part of the exhibition draws on the museum’s nationally renowned collection of archaeological plant remains and the science of paleoethnobotany, the study of how humans of interacted with and impacted the environment. Stations with multiple magnifiers will afford opportunities to view these tiny botanical artifacts.

A popular section of the exhibition will be dendrochronology—the study of tree rings. Cross sections, cores, and sections of once living trees such as a 4,000-year-old bristlecone pine, a 3,000-year-old giant sequoia, and a 200-year-old poplar from the home of Andrew Jackson, along with archaeological specimens, make for fascinating study. Preserved in the annual rings of these trees is a datable record of fires, droughts, changes in climate, and other environmental stresses.

The exhibition concludes with a summary section that addresses projecting the future and understanding the past. Are droughts in the Southwest cyclical? What should be the role of fire in forest management? Is the “Forest Primeval” a myth? Are there clues to global warming in the paleoecological record? What are we doing today to affect the environment of the future?