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A 10,000-Year-Old Site Yields Trove of Data in Florida

By John Noble Wilford

Finding what they are calling a 10,000 year-old underwater time capsule, scientists at the University of Florida think they have caught a rare glimpse of how people in North America responded to the last catastrophic climate change, at the end of the most recent Ice Age.

With the onset of warmer temperatures, their world changed all around them. As distant glaciers melted, the sea rose and encroached on their land. The savanna they once knew in what is now the Southeastern United States turned to thick forest, depriving them of familiar resources and offering new ones. And the mammoths and mastodons they hunted vanished.

Forced to give up biggame hunting, these Paleoindians looked for other food and settled into less nomadic lives. They began living in villages, developing new stone and bone tools and a variety of wooden implements. Adversity seemed to have stimulated innovation.

This moment of transition from the Ice Age to today's climate is unusually well preserved at a site in the Florida Panhandle, at the Aucilla River south of Tallahassee and near the town of Perry. The site was discovered by paleontologists and archeologists led by Dr. David Webb, an anthropology professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Dr. Webb said the site appeared to have been a village by a pond, where people lived for only a few generations about 10,000 years ago. Then rising water levels probably flooded the village and sealed the remains under a protective layer of clay, There they remained undisturbed until now, and the clay seal was so tight that a surprising number of wooden artifacts survived.

These pieces, including what appear to be tent stakes, building poles and part of a canoe, are among the earliest preserved wooden artifacts. At most archeological sites of this age, such wooden materials have usually decayed long before.

"We are especially impressed by the density and diversity of all the artifacts," Dr. Webb said in an interview on Saturday.

Mark Muniz, a graduate student excavating and analyzing the site, said that radiocarbon dates showed that the settlement's existence was confined to a few generations and was never reoccupied later.

"Having such a short time period gives the opportunity to reconstruct how a specific group of Paleoindians in time were living and what they were manufacturing," Mr. Muniz said. "And this is such an extraordinarily rich mutation that it feels as if we're excavating right on their front porch."

Dr. Dennis Stanford, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, who specializes in Paleoindian cultures, agreed that the site could provide an incomparable picture of people adjusting to severe climate change, moving from Ice Age big-game hunting to a more settled life and diverse economy. Similar patterns have been detected in excavations in Texas, though those remains are not nearly as well preserved.

The new discovery, Dr. Stanford said, "sounds pretty exciting" and should yield many new insights into this critical period.

At the time, Paleoindians on the North American plains were still hunting large game, like bison. In the Middle East, people were also beginning to settle into villages and experiment with growing crops and domesticating animals for food.

The Florida archeologists found the new site by excavating the west bank of the Aucilla River at a water depth of about 15 feet. Before the end of the Ice Age, the Florida landscape was much drier, as determined by pollen samples, and the peninsula was nearly twice its present size. The village site was nearly 100 miles from the coast then, compared to its present distance of five miles from the Gulf of Mexico.

So far, the archeologists have found that a large but uncounted number of people lived close together in the village, in contrast to the nomadic ways of only a few generations before. Around an intact hearth were remains of past meals including a roasted turtle bone. Arrowheads and spear points made of flint -- but unlike the Clovis-style of earlier big-game hunters -- were uncovered, as well as stone tools.

Dr. Webb estimated that the artifact density at this site is at least 20 times greater than in lower layers representing occupations by earlier people. The excavations are supported in part by the National Geographic Society.

Brinnen Carter, another graduate student studying the site, said the evidence showed these people to be learning how to survive on smaller animals and different plants.

"Essentially, they were the first humans that weren't big-game hunters," he said.

Coyright © 1996 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission