Florida's First People
The group gathered around a rocky outcrop along the banks of the Aucilla River. They sat around a fire and sharpened their spears. This was an important place. Here, they mined the outcrop for chert, a kind of flint, to make spear points and tools.
Earlier they may have killed a deer and feasted. Later they would break camp and leave behind little, a few spear points, stone tools and a bone or two. Where they came from, where they went and when they first arrived is unknown. Did they live close by or did they visit only when they needed chert?
The desire to answer those questions is what drives the research of Michael K. Faught, assistant professor of anthropology at Florida State University. He knows people last visited the rocky outcrop more than 8,000 years ago. Soil samples indicate that was when the Gulf of Mexico flooded the area. But it was at this particular outcrop, nine miles off the north Florida coast in Apalachee Bay, that a team led by Faught found what may be a 12,000 year-old projectile point, a spear point dating back to the Suwannee era. By all accounts it could be the oldest artifact ever recovered on the continental shelf by professional archaeologists.
Faught, director of the FSU PaleoAucilla Prehistory Project and the university's field school in underwater archaeology, hunts sites out on the Gulf floor which he believes were visited by ancestors of the Clovis people, the hunter/gathers who made the notched point his group found last summer. He thinks those sites would provide answers about when people began to live in Florida. And they may indicate whether people came ashore at the Gulf coast and then moved inland or traveled from the interior to the coast. Faught thinks he's taking the right road to arrive at those answers.
Florida's geography is much different from when hunters of the late Paleo-Indian and Early Archaic periods roamed and lived among the oak hammocks and savannahs along the Aucilla River in the Big Bend region. At that time, North Florida extended about 85 miles farther out into the Gulf.
But starting about 17,000 years ago and continuing for another 10,000 years, a period of global warming melted glaciers and flooded nearly half of what was Florida. Rivers that flow into Apalachee Bay today, like the Ochlockonee, St. Marks and Aucilla, have ancient segments that are now submerged on the continental shelf. Water hides the sites Faught wants to find.
Since 1997, Faught has procured the equipment needed to find the type of terrain where artifacts are likely to be found, trained students to use it and developed the criteria to locate places to investigate. He's confident in his methodology. That's why in the summer of 2000 he invited colleagues to dive into an area that he and his students had identified as a good spot to find artifacts.
In the four summers since the underwater archeology program has operated, a square kilometer of the floor of Apalachee Bay has been mapped with side-scan sonar. So far, 35 sites have been selected for investigation.
Divers have recovered more than 4,000 pieces of chipped stones and several hundred bone fragments from Pleistocene animals including a mastodon, horse and giant sloth. The evidence leads Faught to conclude that there were two periods of occupation along the submerged banks of the Aucilla River. One dates to 12,000 years ago when the sea was 85 miles away. People worked with wood and stone and subsisted on deer and freshwater fish. The second occupation was 8,000 years ago, when the landscape had been transformed to a coastal habitat. At that time people were collecting oysters in the tidal creeks of the river mouth. Faught and the program's graduate students are preparing to submit their findings to peer-reviewed journals early in 2002. Those articles will detail different aspects of the research, offer analysis of the artifacts and the techniques used to find them.
As soon as Cheryl Ward dove to the bottom of Apalachee Bay she thought, “well this is different.” Among the scurrying crabs and brightly colored coral were numerous flakes that she suspected were debris from ancient tool making. Ward is an FSU assistant professor in anthropology.
As she explored the underwater landscape a starfish, missing part of an arm, caught her eye. Next to it was an angled, light colored stone. A piece of flint that someone scraped, filed and fashioned to a point. When she got closer she saw that it was a spearhead. She signaled Faught to come take a look.
“He was so excited,” said Ward. “I could tell that he thought this was important.”
Faught is convinced the point is 12,000 years old because it is an unequivocal example of the type made during a specific era.
“We know this kind of point is found in strata underneath other points for which we have radio-carbon dates,” explained
Faught. “Once you know the types of points you can make a good estimate of their age.”
Faught wants to go back farther. He wants artifacts that pre-date the Clovis era (about 14,000 years ago). He believes the farther out in the Gulf he goes the farther back in time he'll travel. If Faught is correct his work will further stir a debate about when the first humans arrived in the Americas.
“It just doesn't add up,” he said about the traditional theory that all of the prehistoric settlers of America were people who had crossed a land bridge from Asia into Alaska.
“We don't see the artifacts of early Clovis culture in the far Northwest or Alaska. From my perspective, the best evidence of Paleo-Indian continuity through time anywhere (in the western hemisphere) is in the southeast. And it's with these people, the people who made fluted-point projectiles that we are trying to discover offshore.”
“We don't know when people first came to Florida,” said James Dunbar, an archeologist with the Florida Department of State. “If they might have been maritime, going offshore my help us to figure it out.”
In 1986, an artifact collector passed to Dunbar a letter that Faught wrote seeking information about Paleo-Indian sites in Florida. At the time Faught was a doctoral student at the University of Arizona.
“Talk about underwater archaeology and 99 percent of the public think of shipwrecks and just don't think about the sites that have been drowned,” said Dunbar who works in the Florida Bureau of Archaeology.
Dunbar called Faught and was so intrigued by the discussion he suggested that the two of them go diving in the Gulf of Mexico near the mouth of the Aucilla River.
“I knew after that first dive, that we were onto something,” Faught said.
What struck Faught was that the karst plain that makes up the bedrock of north Florida aids the search for artifacts. That means once a potential site is identified the artifacts are close at hand and not buried under yards of muck built up over thousands of years, as normally occurs in other areas of the continental shelf. Faught found flakes of flint, evidence of tool-making, on the Gulf floor during his first trip.
“Whether they came here from land or from the ocean they are at the Aucilla River drainage system,” said Faught.
The Aucilla originates in Georgia and flows about 25 miles southeast of Tallahassee before emptying into the Gulf near where the Florida peninsula juts out from the mainland. Along its banks are numerous prehistoric sites. The ancient river channel stretches about 85 miles along the Gulf floor. Faught is trying to find the submerged channel and follow it to what was the coast about 13,000 years ago. There he will look for evidence of human habitation.
That he has recovered an artifact that may be 12,000 years old from 15 feet of water, plus numerous other spear points, stone tools and animal bones in Apalachee Bay indicates that Faught knows where to look.
He emphatically maintains that the point was not washed downstream by the river, pushed out to sea by a flood, or placed where it was found by some occurrence other than being dropped on dry land by a human.
“The artifacts are not being moved by the river because they are not beat up and polished. They are pristine sharp and there's a diversity of size and type,” said Faught. “What we are finding is consistent with a rising sea level not with objects being pushed down steam and in and out of sinkholes.”
Clovis hunters were in Florida 13,000 – 14,000 years ago. They are a mystery (see sidebar, page 15). All of sudden evidence of their existence, stone tools and middens for example, appear abruptly in the archaeological record. If they arrived earlier, then it's possible that they hunted the savannas, lived among the oak hammocks and fished the rivers on the continental shelf. If sites dated before the Clovis era are found in the Gulf of Mexico then excavating them may add to the understanding of how people migrated to the Americas. If they are after the Clovis era, excavation will add to the understanding of how people adapted to the rising sea levels when the ice age ended.
The ancient river channel is the key to finding where prehistoric people lived, said Faught. Freshwater attracted animals, the mastodons, giant sloths, horses and camels that ancient people would hunt. Faught assumes because there was dense occupation inland along the riverbanks then he will find evidence of humans down river at the coast. Near the submerged banks, teams of students also have found mastodon teeth, animal bones and stone tools.
Beginning in 1997, Faught's team began searching shallow (10-20 feet) underwater terrain that faintly resembles the land the way it was when hunters armed themselves with spears made from stone. The land, of course, has been highly altered by waves and thousands of storms over the eons. As a consequence, the debris that prehistoric people left behind--tools, charred wood, spear points—has been pushed, tossed and buried by the Gulf waters. Equipped with sonar, Faught identifies the subtle distinctions that indicate the land once was the type where humans most likely tended to gather.
“It helps to know what the past landscape looked like,” said Faught. Sonar imaging, diver observation, excavation and mapping is used to reconstruct the prehistoric terrain. “On land we know the terrain where sites have been found, so we look underwater for what were similar features,” explained Faught.
The information gathered from sonar and divers is made into a three-dimensional picture. After studying the pictures and comparing them to an evolving criteria, spots are selected for further investigation and possible excavation. When anything is found, the area is photographed and analyzed and the data is added to the criteria used to select sites.
“This is significant and pioneering work,” said Dunbar. “Within the profession, most (offshore) work is on shipwrecks. This is broadening the horizon.”
Sweeping the Ocean's Floor
When the object of your search is under sand, beneath nine to 20 feet of water and scattered across hundreds of square miles, you need help. Michael Faught selected remote-sensing survey instruments used to find sunken ships to hunt for prehistoric artifacts. He called upon two kinds of sonar to locate the type of terrain where Florida's earliest inhabitants lived: flatlands near a source of freshwater.
A sub-bottom profiler is a sonar device that transmits high-pitched sounds capable of penetrating and reconstructing sediments at great depths. It can detect the presence of bedrock and identify the filled channels of drainage systems beneath the ocean floor. Researchers with the PaleoAucilla Prehistory Project use it to pinpoint springs, sinkholes and ancient river channels (Figure 1).
A second tool used to create images of submerged geologic features is side-scan sonar. This device sends sound waves in a bilateral angular pattern to the ocean's bottom. Each pulse of sound “sees” a 100-200 foot-wide swath of the ocean floor below and to the sides. The result is an image of the sea bottom with distinguishable features such as rock outcroppings (Figure 2), which could have served as a source of flint from which tools were made.
After sonar pictures of the terrain are studied, divers go in and visually inspect specific targets for geological features such as rocky outcrops, limestone rock fields and sediment beds. Faught and graduate students then sample the ocean floor by hand fanning for artifacts and to collect sediment samples. Information gathered from these inspections is used to determine whether more time should be devoted to the site.
If any artifacts are found, the location is designated as an “encounter”. When 10 or more artifacts are found the site is given a state designation officially recording it with the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research. —J.C.
The Clovis Conundrum
Michael K. Faught wants to fill in the gaps in the story of the earliest Americans.
The Clovis theory of how the Americas were populated is that migrating big game hunters walked from Asia to Alaska, followed an ice-free corridor through Canada and then chased mastodons, giant sloths and other animals across the continent and into extinction. But scientists working in both Canada and Brazil have uncovered evidence that is inconsistent with the Clovis timeline. Faught agrees with others who propose that when an ice-free corridor did allow access to the interior there were people already on the landscape. Thus there may be more than one kind of Paleo-Indian and they may have come from more than one direction.
The first people to arrive in America are identified by the fluted (grooved at the base) projectile points they made and first found near Clovis, New Mexico in 1932. The Clovis hunters have long been assumed to be the ancestors of modern Native Americans and their artifacts are among the earliest evidence of humans in the New World.
But recent findings have called into question the theory that they came from the north. Alejandra Duk-Rodkin, a researcher with the Geological Survey of Canada, has studied the history of the river systems that drained the melting glaciers and concluded that the way between them was not passable until after the Clovis culture was already flourishing far to the south.
An Emory University study of DNA in North American ethnic groups found that most native North and South Americans descend from Asian roots. But some Algonquin have DNA lineage that is found only in Europe and is not due to recent mingling of people.
“That's what pushed me over the edge,” Dennis Stanford, an anthropologist with the National Museum of Natural History, told the National Review. Stanford is a strong proponent of putting Clovis origins in Europe with an ocean passage to get here.
“If (that lineage) had found its way to America through Siberia, it almost certainly would have left behind a mark somewhere in Asia; but exhaustive searching has turned up no indications of any such archaeological record.”
South American researchers also call into question the Clovis theory. Artifacts recovered near Monte Verde (in southern Chile) date back more than 15,000 calendar years. And many scientists have noted that early South American cultures are quite distinct from those in the north and the artifacts are not Clovis related.
And then there are the issues that Faught raised in his dissertation in 1996. If Clovis hunters came from Asia then why hasn't anyone reported finding fluted points in northeast Asia, and why are significantly more found east of the Mississippi than west of it? Is it possible that the first people to reach Florida did not come by land?
It will be difficult to determine that they came by boat. Early coastal sites are now deep under water and miles from shore. —J.C.
Sea Archaeology: The Real Survivors
It takes more than curiosity to excavate archaeological sites underwater. It takes a sense of adventure, an ability to improvise and the resolve to weather weeklong operations anchored offshore. Instead of a shovel, screen and towel (the basic tools of archaeology), sea-going archaeologists also need scuba equipment, air compressors, remote-sensing devices, and suction dredges (left). When a site is found, maybe half of a day's daylight hours will be spent in the water searching and excavating. There are times when the underwater archaeologist must overcome poor visibility, problems with equipment, safety issues, and the weather.
“It's far more of a logistical beast, when you excavate at sea,” said James Dunbar of the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research.
The PaleoAucilla Prehistory Project schedules four five-day excursions to the Gulf of Mexico during each summer's six-week field school session. The project makes use of specially outfitted vessels including the Florida Institute of Oceanography's 72-foot R/V Bellows and the FSU Marine Laboratory's 48-foot R/V Seminole. Nature is not always cooperative with the mission at hand.
During one 2001 excursion, sharks and jellyfish prevented dives on two out of five days. On another day, a storm confronted students and crew with ten-foot seas and 40-knot gusts.
“You have to really want to do this,” explained graduate student Brian Marks, who suffered a bout of seasickness while his colleagues struggled to secure 20-foot long sediment coring tubes during one squall. The experience brought to mind comments made by his undergraduate advisor who, upon hearing that Marks had applied to the FSU Program in Underwater Archaeology, remarked, “Why you would take all the problems involved in doing archaeology out to sea is beyond me.”
The problems are varied. Dives once were postponed while students rebuilt an electric generator. Another time a critical part needed to repair the only marine toilet onboard was airlifted from Panama City and dropped into the sea where waiting swimmers recovered it. It is all taken in stride as part of the experience of doing offshore underwater archaeology.
“These sites are in stark contrast to the upland sites which have been depleted of artifacts,” said project director Michael Faught. “No one has collected (from) these offshore sites.”
“Throw a shovel, screen and trowel in the back of a truck and you can do good terrestrial archaeology,” said Marks. “ But at sea, to overcome all the obstacles and then find a missing piece of the puzzle, well, it's just so much more rewarding.” —J.C.