SEATTLE--Newly dated fish bones and artifacts reveal that early Archaic Indians were basking in the Florida sun almost 10,000 years ago. The finding, reported here Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes ScienceNOW), nearly "doubles the time period" that people are known to have inhabited the Atlantic Coast of North America, says archaeologist James Dunbar of the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research in Tallahassee.
Dunbar and Dade County archaeologist Robert Carr have discovered over the last several years bones and tools in a limestone sinkhole site known as Cutler Ridge, overlooking Biscayne Bay on the Atlantic Coast. While most early Native Americans were thought to have subsisted primarily on game, such as bison and deer, these first Floridians were clearly keen fishers, says Dunbar. At the Cutler site's middens--or places where the inhabitants cast off refuse--the archaeologists unearthed the remains of sand sharks, barracuda, and tuna, indicating "a surprising level of maritime knowledge," he says. The inhabitants made good use of their catch, turning sharks' teeth into small, hafted knives and making queen conch shells into drills. Radiocarbon dating of the organic material puts the site at 9670 years before present. The researchers plan to publish their findings later this year.
Many sites from this era have been found on North America's west coast, notes Jon Erlandson, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon, Eugene. "Some researchers thought the lack of such old sites on the east coast was a real cultural pattern," in that people did not inhabit the shores of the east coast, he says, "but this work at Cutler Ridge clearly shows that was not the case." Erlandson says the find also pushes back by 5000 years the known time that people braved the seas to catch fish as large as tuna and barracuda. "The people must have been using boats, and fairly sophisticated ones," he says. Along with evidence of seaworthy craft from more than 10,000 years before present on California's Channel Islands, the Florida find shows that maritime resources were important to early peoples on both coasts of the New World.