The Florida panhandle got some big press this week, yet another early human find confirmed in North America, people entrenched along the Aucilla River south of Tallahassee 14,550 years ago. This came from an underwater excavation where archaeologists have been plumbing a sinkhole through which the river flows. Artifacts and megafauna remains have gathered in the hole. A mastodon tusk shows clear butchering marks while it was fresh, and stone tools were collected in the vicinity.
When you hear news of these finds, what picture comes to mind? What kind of landscape are we in? It’s an important question to me. Archaeological finds are not what is seen in collection drawers and display cases, not photos in textbooks. They lose their color and context when they leave a place. They lose the sounds of the night, the burble of water. These objects are more than themselves. They tell a story of the earth around them, which in turn tells the story of the artifacts.
I visited the Aucilla River a few years ago in the lowland pine and palm forests of Florida’s Big Bend country. The river disappears holes; I’d never seen anything like it. It would come up again in a quarter mile, where it traveled a short distance through crowded palmettos and ferns, and went under again. Like stitching through fabric, the Aucilla flows in and out of a chain of sinkholes and skylights in dark and karstic earth. This is what preserves the archaeological and paleontological remains. The sinkholes act as time capsules. Archaeologists go down with SCUBA gear and spotlights, swimming into the underworld to find the past. Continue reading