Latvis/Simpson site update

By Matthew Mihlbachler

While the focal point of the ARPP is to investigate the earliest humans in Florida, we often make numer-ous unintentional discoveries along the way that are very important contributions to our endeavor to reconstruct the past. A case in point is the Latvis/Simpson site, located at the lower end of the Little River section of the Aucilla.

In 1995, a preliminary field investigation took place at this site. Like the Page/Ladson site, Latvis/Simpson is a sinkhole that contained a rich layer of bones and artifacts at the surface. The bottom of the hole is filled by a stratigraphic deposit of mastodon dung composed of coarsely masticated sticks, twigs, bark fragments and an occasional seed. Originally, we hoped that Latvis/Simpson was roughly the same age as Page/Ladson (between 12,000 and 10,000 years old) and that the dung layer contained more evidence about early Americans and their interactions with the extinct megafauna.

In typical fashion, the site did not turn out to be what we had hoped for. Collecting the exposed artifacts and bones was a fulfilling endeavor, but unfortunately they were a mixed accumulation, and there was no direct evidence that the artifacts were in any way associated with the faunal remains. Additionally, the carbon dates from plant material contained in the dung layer turned out to be considerably older than we had expected. In fact, they were about three times older than Page/Ladson! (between 32,000 and 31,000 years old). The Latvis/Simpson deposits were laid down long before the arrival of any humans.

Despite our unfulfilled expectations, Latvis/Simpson contains a number of surprises that are excellent avenues of research. Most importantly, it is providing us with clues about the ecology and behavior of proboscideans that utilized Florida sinkholes and springs. For instance, we can now compare the contents of the gut remains and look for differences in the diet, health and nutrition of the mastodons that lived before and during the arrival of humans. Differences may lead us to clues about how environmental changes and, possibly, humans influenced these beasts at the time of their demise. Sorting through dung is a lengthy, mind-numbing process, and as a result, this research is still in its earliest stages.

The remains of a single semi-articulated mastodon were found embedded within the dung deposit at Latvis/Simpson. During the 1995 field season, the ARPP team excavated two 1X1 meter units into the dung matrix and recovered the distal ends of both tusks, a limb bone and a rib of a subadult mastodon. The excellent preservation of the bones and the surrounding dung deposit gives us an excellent chance to understand the significance of the springs and sinkholes of North Florida on the paleoecology and behavior of the proboscideans that utilized them.

The seeds (e.g. grape and gourd) found in the dung indicate a summer deposition. This was probably a dry season, and most proboscidean activity probably occurred around the springs and sinkholes at this time of scarce water when hordes of animals thronged to the remaining sources of standing water.

The positions of the recovered bones have allowed us to roughly reconstruct the scenario of the death and deposition of this animal.

1. While the skull was completely destroyed, the tips of the tusks jutted down into the matrix in anatomical position (Fig. 1). Apparently the animal died in or very near the sinkhole and eventually ended up lying face down in the bottom of the hole.

2. The recovered long bones and limbs were positioned vertically and jutted deeply into the dung deposit. It is possible that the animal, weakened by thirst or starvation, ventured into the sinkhole to bathe or wallow, became mired and died trying to free itself from the perilous glue-like sucking grasp of the bog.

3. Many of the mastodon bones contain deep grooves and scratches, indicating that the bones were trampled and stomped into the mire by other proboscideans which depended on the use of the water source. The trampling may also be responsible for the vertical orientation of the bones.

Most of the potentially butchered mastodon material recovered from the archeological sites at the Aucilla, such as Page/Ladson and Sloth Hole are remains of subadults. The question remains whether or not Paleoindians selectively hunted subadult individuals for some reason. The Latvis/Simpson site reinforces the notion that large numbers of proboscideans and other potential game animals annually congregated around the sinkholes and springs during late summer and early spring. The preserved juvenile mastodon indicates that the annual die-off of younger or weaker individuals in these areas was a natural phenomenon occurring during the most stressful time of the year. Possibly, ancient hunters simply took advantage of this natural phenomenon when they arrived in this region.

As of yet, none of these conclusions are definite, and more Latvis/Simpson fieldwork is needed. The goal is to excavate more units into the dung layer to collect fresh dung samples and to remove the rest of the juvenile mastodon material. We are ever in search of better evidence and better theories. For the ARPP, Latvis/Simpson will be invaluable in interpreting what the Late Pleistocene of North Florida was like before humans appeared. It will be invaluable in providing a framework for understanding what changes take place when humans enter into the scenario.