Science & Tech

First Settlers In Gulf Coast Far Earlier Than Believed

Waters teamed up with Jessi Halligan to excavate the Page-Ladson site,
By Keith Randall, Texas A&M Marketing & Communications May 13, 2016

Stone tools found in a Florida river.
Stone tools found in a Florida river.

The discovery of stone tools found in a Florida river show that humans settled the Southeastern United States far earlier than previously believed – perhaps by as much as 1,500 years, says a team of scientists that includes a Texas A&M University researcher.

Michael Waters and colleagues from Florida State University, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, the University of Texas, the University of Arizona, Stafford Research Laboratories in Colorado, Aucilla Research Institute in Florida and the Universities of Exeter and Cambridge in the UK have had their work published in the current issue of Science Advances.

Waters teamed up with Jessi Halligan (assistant professor at Florida State University who graduated from Texas A&M in 2012) to excavate the Page-Ladson site which is located about 26 feet underwater in a sinkhole in the Aucilla River, not far from Tallahassee. The site was named Page-Ladson after Buddy Page, a former Navy SEAL diver who first brought the site to the attention of archaeologists, and the Ladson family, owners of the property.

The site was first investigated from 1987-1997 by James Dunbar and David Webb, but their original findings, which included eight stone tools and a mastodon tusk with cut marks, were dismissed.

Underwater excavations at the Page-Ladson site.
Underwater excavations at the Page-Ladson site. The diver is digging with a trowel as the hose sucks the sediment to the surface where it is screened.

(Courtesy of Mike Waters)

Working in near-zero visibility waters in the murky river from 2012-2014 with a team including many Texas A&M students, Halligan and Waters were able to excavate stone tools and the bones of extinct animals. They found tools such as a biface – a knife used for cutting and butchering animal meat – and other tools. They also reanalyzed the mastodon tusk and were able to show that it displayed obvious signs of cutting created when the tusk was removed from the skull.

In all, 71 new radiocarbon dates leave no doubt that the artifacts they found date to about 14,550 years ago. It’s believed Clovis – once widely considered the first inhabitants of the Americas – settled in various sites about 13,000 years ago.

“The new discoveries at Page-Ladson show that people were living in the Gulf Coast area much earlier than believed,” says Waters, director of Texas A&M’s Center for the Study of the First Americans.

“The stone tools and faunal remains at the site show that at 14,550 years ago, people knew how to find game, fresh water and material for making tools. These people were well-adapted to this environment. The site is a slam-dunk pre-Clovis site with unequivocal artifacts, clear stratigraphy, and thorough dating.”

Clovis is the first widespread prehistoric culture that appeared about 13,000 years ago. Clovis originated south of the large ice sheets that covered Canada at that time and are the direct descendants of the earliest people who arrived in the New World around 15,000 years ago.

page ladson site
Michael Waters (at right) and Texas A&M graduate student Morgan Smith examine the 14,600-year- old knife found at the Page-Ladson site.

(Courtesy of Mike Waters)

Clovis people fashioned distinctive stone spear points with fluted bases that are found in Texas and other portions of the U.S. and northern Mexico. These weapons were used to hunt animals, including mammoths and mastodons, from 12,600 to 13,000 years ago.

“This is a big deal,” says Florida State’s Halligan.

“There were people here. So how did they live? This has opened up a whole new line of inquiry for us as scientists as we try to understand the settlement of the Americas.”

Adds Daniel Fisher of the University of Michigan, also heavily involved in the project, “Our work provides strong evidence that early human hunters did not hunt mastodons to extinction as quickly as supporters of the so-called ‘Blitzkrieg’ hypothesis have argued. Instead, the evidence from this site shows that humans and megafauna coexisted for at least 2,000 years.”

Waters says the site has changed dramatically since it was first occupied 14,550 years ago. Millennia of deposition associated with rising water tables tied to sea level rise left the site buried under 15 feet of sediment and submerged.

“The Page-Ladson site gives us another clue about the first people to explore and settle the Americas,” adds Waters.

“Page-Ladson significantly adds to our growing knowledge that people were exploring and settling the Americas between 14,000 and 15,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence from other sites dating to this time period show us that people were also adapted to living in Texas, Washington, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and South America. Clearly, people were all over the Americas earlier than we thought.”

Additionally, the evidence from Page-Ladson and the other sites shows that people coexisted with and hunted large mammals, such as the mammoth and mastodon, before they became extinct.

“Work by Texas A&M graduate student Angelina Perrotti on the dung fungus Sporormiella shows that extinction of the megafauna occurred around 12,600 years ago at the site, which is synchronous with other regions in North America,” Waters notes.

“Page-Ladson is an important site that has yielded important information about the First Americans and about the journey of our own species.”

The project was primarily funded by the North Star Archaeological Research program and Chair in First American Studies at Texas A&M; the Elfrieda Frank Foundation; and the National Geographic Society.

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