Mammoth Bone Discovery Could Change Understanding Of Early Human Settlement

Morgan Smith examines bones underwater

Morgan Smith, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology from Tallahassee, is conducting research that could change current beliefs about how early humans settled the U.S.

By Keith Randall, Texas A&M University Marketing and Communications

Highlights

  • Determining if humans and ancient mammoths coexisted at the Florida site could change how scientists understand early human settlement
  • There is evidence of human activity at the site dating to the last Ice Age 12,700 years ago
  • Morgan Smith’s research could also help scientists understand how humans can adapt to climate change today

A Texas A&M University doctoral student is hoping to prove – or disprove—that humans and ancient mammoths existed at the same Florida river site more than 12,000 years ago, and his findings could change current beliefs about how areas of the Southeastern United States were settled by early humans.

Morgan Smith, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology from Tallahassee, has been conducting underwater research at the Guest Site, located on the Silver River near Ocala, Fla., for the past three years.  The site is in water about 10 feet deep, and Smith and his fellow divers use water induction dredges (similar to underwater vacuums) to collect material.

A key finding, Smith reports, shows that there is no doubt that humans were at the exact same site.

“There is definitely evidence of prehistoric human activity at the site and the site is from the last Ice Age, so likely older than 12,700 years ago,” he adds.

“The next step is a critical one: to prove the mammoth bones and artifacts are associated with one another, and have not been mixed together over time.”

Morgan Smith underwater cave dive

Smith dives to retrieve materials for further research.

For every day spent collecting bones and artifacts in the water, it takes about two weeks to analyze the material brought up, he says.

“We have recovered several mammoth bones from a young Columbian Mammoth, likely a juvenile,” says Smith.

“We also recovered five flakes, which are the by-products of stone tool making. The site was originally excavated in 1973. The original excavator found six flakes, a projectile point, and two butchered mammoth bones. Material from both excavations makes up the site assemblage.”

The work is important, he believes, because there are few reliable radiocarbon dates that exist from Ice Age archaeological sites in the Southeastern United States.  As a result, the lack of data has made understanding the settlement of the region difficult.

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“Also,” Smith says, “few Ice Age megafauna (mammoth, mastodon, horse, etc.) kill sites exist in the Eastern U.S. The Guest Mammoth site may be a rare exception to this trend. More broadly, understanding how people adapted to the Southeastern U.S. during the Ice Age, a period ending in dramatic climate change, has direct relevance to humans living in our current period of climate change. Understanding how sea levels rose and populations adapted to changing coastlines, freshwater sources and food can help inform us what we may face in the ensuing decades.”

Smith says he and his research team have finished the field work at the Florida site and they will be analyzing the data in the lab of Dr. Michael Waters, who directs Texas A&M’s Center for the Study of the First Americans. Smith will be returning to the site next year to conduct more research.

The project was funded by the Felburn Foundation, the Texas A&M Department of Anthropology and its Center for the Study of First Americans.

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Contact: Morgan Smith at (850) 509-5677 or mfsmith1964@tamu.edu or Keith Randall, News & Information Services, at (979) 845-4644 or keith-randall@tamu.edu


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