Early Florida Man
An important discovery caps more than 40 years of archaeological and anthropological research
Butchering a mastodon must have been a mammoth undertaking in the Ice Age. We know that for a fact — mastodons were as big as modern-day Asian elephants, not quite as big as their wooly counterparts, but just as awesome. Another fact: They were being cut up into bite-sized campfire chunks in Florida more than a thousand years earlier than scholars previously estimated.
Indeed, before today, the oldest known evidence for people in North America was a mere 13,000 years old. Now, thanks to a collaborative research effort between Florida State University and academics across the nation, we have confirmation that early man was living in the Southeast as far back as 14,500 years ago.
The implications are huge for understanding early human migration and how North America was populated.
“This is a big deal,” said FSU assistant professor of Anthropology Jessi Halligan, a researcher and diver who led the research team that recently confirmed a somewhat disputed discovery from 20 years ago. “This has opened up a whole new line of inquiry for us as scientists.”
Halligan’s team consisted of Michael Waters of Texas A&M Univeristy, Daniel Fisher of the University of Michigan and well-known Florida archaeologist Jim Dunbar, chairman of the board of the Aucilla Research Institute and also a member of the Panhandle Archaeological Society at Tallahassee.
From 2012 to 2014, the group dove on and studied the “Page-Ladson” site, a sinkhole located 30 feet beneath the waters of the Aucilla River east of Tallahassee. The river’s potential for containing significant Paleo-Indian artifacts was established by amateur archaeologists in the early 1980s. In 1983, Dunbar and other researchers started a formal archaeological project that concluded in 1997. By the time that project wrapped up, his crew had retrieved several stone tools and a mastodon tusk with cut marks in a layer of sediment more than 14,000 years old.
The findings were published in 2006, and Dunbar recalled the new dates were met with some skepticism. Up until that point the oldest known human artifacts in North America were 13,000 years old. Those had been found decades ago in Clovis, New Mexico, among other places. What was found in Florida was 14,500 years old, far older than what was found in the American Southwest.
“There was a group of archaeologists that wouldn’t accept anything older than Clovis, and what we had was older by 1,500 years and it caused a good deal of controversy,” Dunbar said.
Halligan and her team researched the site between 2012 and 2014, and she said the recent findings announced this spring definitely lay that controversy to rest.
“The dates from the original investigations were not really ambiguous; people were unsure that the findings were cultural,” she said. “After all, some scientists said — and I paraphrase and summarize — the stone ‘artifacts’ were made of the same stone that surrounds the sinkhole, and were not particularly convincing, and there are many natural reasons by which an elephant tusk can get marks on it when it lays next to a water hole. What we found though, was an unambiguous artifact from the same layer with the same dates associated with it, so we had absolutely clear evidence of humans 1,500 years before the Clovis people arrived.”
The Page-Ladson site takes its name from Wakulla County
native, Vietnam veteran and former Navy SEAL Buddy Page who showed researchers the location of what turned out to be the key artifacts. The Ladson family owns the land.
Page was a diver by vocation and avocation. He was a local historian, founding member of the Natural Bridge Historical Society, blacksmith and “hobby archaeologist” who loved to explore the woods and rivers. Dunbar said Page was the one who showed him and long-time paleontologist David Webb the now-famous underwater archaeological site.
“Buddy was a good friend of mine — and a great loss,” Dunbar said, noting that Page died in 2008. But in 1983, he was in the boat with Dunbar and Webb as they explored and dove the river. One afternoon the crew stopped for lunch and Page turned to the other men and asked them if they wanted to see a really good site. They nodded.
“He said, ‘You’re anchored on it,’ and he went down and came up later with three or four mastodon bones in his hand and they were large,” Dunbar recalled. “Anyway, Dave and I jumped in the river and combed the river bottom and found promising potential there, and we came back next year and started a test unit in the river. Buddy was there with us for a number of seasons and helped with equipment, and on the site he was a jack-of-all trades. He was as interested in what we were finding as we were.”
Dunbar said the Aucilla River came to the attention of archaeologists thanks to the efforts of diver and amateur archaeologist Don Serbousek, who had been diving the river since 1968. Serbousek collected some stone tools from the river, including projectile points, and wrote up his findings in the March–June 1983 edition of “The Florida Anthropologist.” In the article, he called upon professional archaeologists to literally dig deeper into these initial finds. And so, Dunbar and Webb and Page obliged him.
“Serbousek was a river diver from Daytona who had been diving in Aucilla and other places for a number of years, and he thought that he came across a deposit at a site downriver,” Dunbar said. “He said there’s a sediment that looks like chopped grass. It looks like somebody mowed the lawn, had a grass catcher and dumped it.”
Turns out, what they had found was the stomach contents of a long-extinct mastodon. They could tell it wasn’t a mammoth because the preserved material in question was actually the remnant of chewed up twigs, which meant they were dealing with a browsing animal that fed on succulent bushes, and not a grass “grazer.” There were other amazing finds in the underwater sediment that were spectacularly preserved, such as a tusk that had suspicious cut marks, and other interesting organic material.
“Since we found a mastodon skeleton and the digesta, we figured it was mastodon,” Dunbar said. “We also found some epithelial cells still preserved in the sediment — which is itself pretty incredible. We also found a round gourd and seeds of that plant. I’m sure the animal ate it. It is absolutely incredible. We were able to carbon date individual seeds which is better than dating a tree with different rings. Dating seeds gave us the most precise date you could get.”
A Second Opinion
Flash forward to 2012. That’s when Halligan and the other researchers entered the picture. Dunbar said it was the perfect opportunity to get a “second opinion” on the findings from 20 years ago.
“Jessi decided she wanted to do some underwater archeology in Florida … and they were set to investigate any site claiming to be pre-Clovis, so in 2012 they did a second opinion,” Dunbar said. “They went to the site where we found the old component and verified what we found in ’97. We had found flint flakes when we were doing it, but they aren’t the most exciting things in the world. But when Jessi’s group went back, they found the tip of a projectile point that was reused as a cutting tool. What we found there was a tusk that had a cut mark on it and they went back and found more of the mastodon and more flakes and the tip of the point.”
The new team excavated stone tools and bones of extinct animals. One of the key artifacts was a “biface” tool, a primitive knife with sharp edges knapped on both sides used for cutting and butchering animals. Fisher, a vertebrate paleontologist, took another look at the mastodon tusk that Dunbar found during the earlier excavations and connected the dots: The cut marks were signs that it had been intentionally removed from the skull, possibly to get access to the edible tissue at its base.
“Each tusk this size would have had more than 15 pounds of tender, nutritious tissue in its pulp cavity, and that would certainly have been of value,” Fisher said.
Halligan said that environmental data from the Page-Ladson site tells us that the site was at one time an isolated pond surrounded by “cypress and grapes.” It also varied between wet and dry conditions. Sea levels were 150 feet lower in that time period, so the pond would have been more than 60 miles from the ocean. The archaic people who lived here would have been fully modern Homo sapiens, capable of essential skills like cooking, sewing clothes, flint-knapping and using spears.
“They were hunters and gatherers who were probably pretty mobile, and who had a very good grasp upon their local plants, animals and weather patterns,” she said, and added that there were probably hundreds of different types of plants and animals, large and small, within their grasp. Florida had mammoths, mastodons, sloths, tapirs, horses, llamas, bison and others, and many types of smaller animals.
Go East, Early Man
One of the most intriguing questions posed by this groundbreaking research is simple: How did these pre-Clovis people get here? It’s always been accepted that most early people left Asia and came to North America through a gap in the existing ice sheet covering much of what is now the northern tier of the United States and all of Canada. But that corridor wasn’t open for business 14,500 years ago. So there had to have been another route, one that is open to speculation at this point.
“We do not know, but Page-Ladson makes it clear that people were in the New World on the far side of the continent from the ice-free corridor by 14,500 years ago,” Halligan said. “Since the ice-free corridor doesn’t seem to be open until half a millennium after this, it is not the answer for where the first people come from unless they arrived before the last Glacial Maximum — which started around 21,000 years ago — for which we have no evidence. However, it is possibly people came by sea along the west coast. Research has shown that area would have been habitable with good kelp forests and many rocky pocket beaches perfect for large marine mammals, so people could have been bouncing down the coast in boats comparatively easily.”
The Search Continues
As significant as the Page-Ladson site is, it’s not the only one out there. That’s why researchers like Dunbar, Halligan and their colleagues aren’t resting on their laurels. Halligan was back in the field this summer, scouting for more clues to the many questions that remain.
“We still have some things to write up about Page-Ladson, but I am working on other sites this summer to look for more Page-Ladsons,” she said. “Now that we know the people were here, we need to know more about them: where they came from, how they lived, where else did they live, how did they adjust to climate change.”
Underwater sites like Page-Ladson are the key to these discoveries, Dunbar said, because certain Florida rivers have qualities and conditions that lend themselves well to preserving these ancient bits of evidence.
“The Page-Ladson site is an important site, but it’s not the only one. The research is just beginning in a serious way on these sites. There’s wonderful preservation (that) you don’t usually see in many locations that old. Time has a way of erasing a lot of things,” he said. “The whole area in my opinion is probably one of the most archaeologically and paleontologically rich of any place in the Southeast because you don’t have the preservation (qualities) and those kinds of things everywhere else. It’s an important scientific resource.”
The discovery took the world’s media by storm, inspiring stories in outlets including National Geographic and Smithsonian magazines, the New York Times, CNN, the Washington Post and many others. Halligan was besieged with media inquiries when the official announcement was made back in May.
“I’m not sure why it received so much attention,” she said. “I spent 75 hours on the phone that week talking to (media including) National Geographic and Smithsonian and the L.A. Times and got interviewed by five different papers from Quebec. I didn’t expect quite the furor. I think it’s the story of the ‘first and oldest’ and the romantic image of Ice Age people coming to the New World and settling it.”
According to Florida State University, researchers from across the nation collaborated on the study. These include Angelina Perrotti and David Carlson from Texas A&M, Ivy Owens from the University of Cambridge, Joshua Feinberg and Mark Bourne from the University of Minnesota, Brendan Fenerty from the University of Arizona, Barbara Winsborough with the Texas State Museum, and Thomas Stafford Jr. from Stafford Research Laboratories in Colorado.
The research was funded by the Elfrieda Frank Foundation, the National Geographic Society and the North Star Archaeological Research Program and Chair in First American Studies of Texas A&M University. It was also supported by the Ladson family, which allowed researchers to perform multiple excavations on their property over the past several years.