Bones of Contention
Underwater archaeologist unravels early cultures
A broken knife tip might seem to be an insignificant find for a seasoned archeologist like Dr. Jessi Halligan. Such fragments are easily found by anyone who knows to look for them in the Aucilla River basin.
But in addition to an object, itself, the context in which it is found is important. Halligan found a particular knife tip amid a pile of matter that had been digested by a mastodon more than 1,000 years before humans were believed to have inhabited the area.
The archeological community is still shaking its head.
Halligan is an assistant professor of anthropology at Florida State University. She specializes in underwater archaeology, but unlike most of her peers, she is not particularly interested in shipwrecks. She focuses instead on submerged landscapes in her efforts to better understand the lives of the first peoples to populate North America.
When Jessi Halligan speaks about the geologic past, she vividly describes an unfamiliar world where land masses were much larger than they are today and grassy plains existed where forests now stand. There, mastodons, mammoths, bison, wolves and hunter-gatherers hung out at pools created by springs and left behind bones and broken tools that today are accessible only by divers.
As a child, Halligan was fascinated by Howard Carter’s discovery of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb. She later volunteered to help with archeological digs in her home state of South Dakota. She saw an ocean for the first time when she flew into Boston to begin her undergraduate anthropology studies. At Harvard University, she divided her time among her classwork, rugby practice and dig sites, including some that figured in a field study at Martha’s Vineyard.
“It just kept percolating in the back of my brain about how much our studies of people in the past are impacted by where the land is, where the water is and where the water has destroyed the land,” Halligan said.
After five years spent working in cultural resource management, Halligan went to graduate school at Texas A&M University. Drawn to its spring-connected river systems and the history of finds in the region, she chose the Aucilla River area to be the subject of her thesis. She worked to determine whether artifacts found at the bottom of the Aucilla had been moved along by rains and rivers or remained near the spots where they were discarded thousands of years ago.
For the most part, she found the latter to be true.
In 2012, Halligan published her dissertation and received permission to pursue further investigation into the controversial Page-Ladson site further down the Aucilla River. More than a decade before, divers’ stories of spear points attracted the attention of researchers from the University of Florida and the Bureau of Archeological Research in Tallahassee.
“They spent the next 10 years excavating there, and they found in this layer they called Stratum 3 a mixture of sand and what turned out to be mastodon digesta — essentially mastodon poop — that dated to more than 14,400 years old,” Halligan explained. “They found a mastodon tusk that had cut marks on it in a place that would have been inside the mastodon skull.”
To paleontologist David Webb and archeologist James Dunbar, this was clear evidence that humans were present in the area prior to the earliest known settlers, the Clovis culture, which dates to approximately 13,000 years ago.
“It was really exciting, but a lot of researchers politely ignored this site because they would say, ‘Well, you’re in the bottom of a dark river. How sure are you that this stuff is real?’” Halligan said.
The marks on the tusk might have been caused by something other than a knife. There was not sufficient evidence to rewrite history. Not yet.
Halligan went to the site along with Dunbar and one of her professors in hopes of resolving the matter. During their first year of excavation, they found nothing. Then, among mastodon tusks and bones from a camel-like creature, the palaeolama, she discovered a knife point.
“Over the last several years, we found several more artifacts in that sand and elephant poop layer — about 15 altogether — and all of them are
clustered where the bones are. We are not finding any where the bones aren’t,” Halligan said.
Last summer, Halligan returned to Page-Ladson hoping to learn more about the humans who lived there at the end of the last ice age. During an excavation, she made a groundbreaking discovery — two projectile points, one of the Bolen style, the other of the Suwannee style. Both are common in the region, but archeologists had never been able to accurately date them because no carbon-based materials had been found with them. Halligan discovered her points on what appeared to be an ancient hearth filled with carbon-rich charcoal.
“We thought there was like 1,000 years between them (the Bolen and Suwanee cultural phases), but the points were on opposite sides of the same hearth, so are they the same age?” Halligan said. “We don’t know. We’ll see what the radiocarbon dating tells us.”
Every Fossil Has a Story to Offer
The Page-Ladson site, located about 45 minutes from Tallahassee on the Aucilla River, is the oldest known site of human life in the Southeast. Using radiocarbon dating techniques, researchers have determined that artifacts at the site are about 14,550 years old.