Page/Ladson faunal remains and the paleoenvironment

By Tanya M. Peres

Many of the reports and articles in this newsmagazine are site updates and field reports. However, the majority of this work that is not seen or publicized is the actual analysis of artifacts and remains. Over May and June 1997, I identified and analyzed faunal remains from the Page/Ladson site, which resulted in my Master's thesis at Florida State University. The assemblage that I looked at was excavated in October 1995 by Brinnen Carter and the ARPP crew. Remains were recovered from strata above, and perched on, the Bolen level.

I began my research thinking that I would be looking at the prehistoric meals of the ancient people that inhabited this site long ago. About halfway into the analysis I realized that there was little or no evidence left on the remains of use by humans. After confirming my suspicions with my professor, Dr. Rochelle Marrinan, I designed a system that scores certain attributes of an assemblage (in a presence/absence fashion), with the total score determining if the assemblage is a result of a) human use (cultural); or b) environmental deposition (natural). The criteria that I used are: butchering marks, worked bone, association with artifacts/features, thermal alteration, and presence of "exotic" taxa. The assemblage from the Bolen level had an overall score that denoted it as an environmental assemblage. There were three bone "pins" in the sample, but they were most likely out of context, thus even though they were cultural in origin, they were natural in deposition. Since the assemblage did not support my original hypothesis that the collection would demonstrate human activity at the site, little can be said about subsistence practices. We do know, nonetheless, that the identified taxa were present in the environment, and thus available for selection by humans.

These findings may be disappointing to some, but in actuality they are just as important, if not more so, than a culturally deposited sample. This sample is unique in that it is the first to be analyzed and quantified from this site and time period (ca. 10,000 years BP) in particular, and along the Aucilla River in general. The species list (Table 1) that has been derived from this collection will aid in future analyses of additional samples from the project's excavations. The preservation of the faunal remains is excellent and allowed for identification of individuals to the species level, which is important in determining the type of environment that would have existed to support such faunas.

This sample is also of value to the interpretation of the environment of the Aucilla River area at the time of the late Pleistocene to early Holocene transition. Using modern habitat data on extant species and paleobotanical data from Florida and southern Georgia, I proposed a picture of what the natural setting would have been for the people that lived in this area. These data, added to what is already thought to have existed, allow us to form a clearer view of this important site of prehistoric activity.

I will summarize the paleoenvironmental data that were used in my thesis. Researchers believe the late Pleistocene period (ca. 12,000 - 10,000 BP) in the Southeastern United States was characterized by much lower water levels than at present, because much of the earth's water was frozen in the glaciers at high latitudes. During this time, Florida experienced some of its driest ecological conditions. Wood and organic remains recovered from sinkholes in the panhandle region of Florida imply shallow water environments in the late Pleistocene followed by what appears to be deeper water in the early Holocene. It seems that at the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary, much of Florida and southern Georgia was already covered by a dry, oak-dominated, grass and herb forest punctuated with prairie-like areas. The Holocene began around 10,000 BP with the rise of pine and oak dominated environments, as a warm, dry phase ended with an increase in precipitation in the late Pleistocene (ca 14,000 BP). The Aucilla River corridor was no different. The area was probably surrounded by an oak dominated forest, with scrub vegetation consisting of grasses (Gramineae) and herbs such as ragweed (Ambrosia). The water levels were in a state of flux at this time, and the Page/Ladson sinkhole was a steady source of water in a relatively dry landscape.

The early Holocene environment is reminiscent of what is present at the Aucilla River today. The Florida Department of Natural Resources describes this area as being composed of a number of vegetative communities. On the higher banks of the river, hardwood forests are present, while cypress swamps dominate the low-lying areas. Most of the river corridor is undeveloped. Many of the lands adjacent to the river are owned and managed by various state agencies as wildlife refuge and management areas. Private landowners account for the balance.

Various animals live in this area, a number of which are endangered or threatened, such as: Atlantic Sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus), Suwanee Bass (Micropterus notius), wood stork (Mycteria americana), West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus), bald eagle (Haliateeus leucocephalus), red-cockaded woodpecker (Dendrocopos borealis), Mississippi Kite (Ictinia mississippiensis), and black bear (Ursus americanus). All animals that have been identified in the prehistoric collections are present today in the environment, except Equus.

As a result of this study, some questions have been answered, but many remain for future research. Since this is an isolated study for this time frame, more faunal collections, pollen analyses, and hydrological studies are needed to support the proposed paleoenvironmental reconstruction of the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary. Fortunately, Erika Simons and I are currently analyzing earlier faunal remains from all excavation years at the Page/Ladson site to add to this database and to test my paleoenvironmental model. I am also identifying, analyzing, and quantifying faunal remains from the Little River Rapids Site that were excavated as part of Mark Muniz' thesis project. The data collected from this study will be added to the existing knowledge of faunal remains at the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary, and afford us a more holistic view of the Aucilla River area. Thus, the Page/Ladson site has afforded scientists a unique opportunity to recover, document, and study the presence of the earliest occupation of Florida by humans, as well as the environment that shaped and supported their subsistence practices. The Aucilla River, along with other river corridors in Florida, is rich with these types of deposits and should be explored further to expand our understanding of this little known time period of human history.