FSU researchers: Deer antlers played large role in Cherokee society

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Associate Professor of Anthropology Tanya Peres

It’s not uncommon to see a person holding onto a rabbit’s foot key chain for good luck, but in the traditional Cherokee homelands of the southern United States, deer antlers were a symbol of luck and heritage.

In a new paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Associate Professor of Anthropology Tanya Peres and colleague Heidi Altman from Georgia Southern University dive into the deep archaeological record of deer antlers in Cherokee life.

“A lot of times when archaeologists look at sites they have preconceived notions of what antlers are used for,” Peres said. “They might jump to the idea that these antlers were discarded after the deer were skinned for pelts and used for food. Or they might think they were used to flake stones for weapons. But there are some other options we want them to think about.”

Deer were a huge part of life in the American South with Native Americans and settlers making use of the meat, marrow, bone antler and hide. But Peres and Altman through their paper detail a spiritual relationship between ancient and modern Cherokee and a commonly hunted animal — the white-tailed deer.

Animals played a central role in Cherokee life, even in the modern era, and the Cherokee held very specific beliefs about how animals should be treated.

There are multiple stories in Cherokee lore about how people should behave toward animals, Peres said. For example, the importance of deer in their societies required that hunters say prayers, sing songs and cut out and discard specific parts of an animal’s hindquarter while hunting.

If hunters did not follow these rituals, they were likely to experience bad luck, specifically rheumatism. If a hunter did behave in accordance with those rules, the white-tailed deer would reveal itself to the hunter to be shot. 

The hunter could then use the antlers as an amulet.

The use of these antlers as a good luck charm was so pervasive that it was even copied by many European settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries.

“We really want archaeologists to stop and think before labeling antlers about the role they played in these societies,” Peres said.