Florida's indians from ancient times to the present

By Dr. Jerald T. Milanich

Since at least the 1920’s residents of Florida have been finding Indian artifacts in the bottoms of rivers in the northern part of the state. The Simpson family of High Springs were pioneers in river collecting, diving the depths and wading the shallow portions of the Ichetucknee River long before it became a state park.

One artifact found by the Simpsons would offer dramatic proof of the antiquity of humans in Florida. That artifact—a broken portion of a harpoon-like spear point—was made from the ivory tusk of a mammoth, an elephant which lived in Florida during the Ice Age but became extinct shortly after. Not only was the point made from an elephant’s tusk, it was identical to an ivory artifact found at the Blackwater Draw archaeological site near Clovis, New Mexico. In the 1930’s at that site Paleoindian artifacts were found for the first time in America in association with the bones of extinct Pleistocene animals. Blackwater Draw proved humans—Paleoindians—lived in the Americas at the end of the Ice Age. The Ichetucknee River point, as well as other artifacts and animal bones found by the Simpsons, showed Paleoindians were living in Florida at the same time and they, too, must have hunted now extinct animals. Today we know that the earliest Paleoindians lived in Florida 12,000 years ago.

Who were these Paleoindians, these “ancient Indians,” and how did they live? What was the significance of their stone, bone, and ivory artifacts being found with animal bones in the bottom of rivers, not only the Ichetucknee but the other limestone-bottomed rivers of northern Florida like the Santa Fe, Aucilla, and Wacissa?

The Florida Paleoindians were descendants of people who crossed into North America from eastern Asia during the Pleistocene epoch. At that time the oceans of the world were several hundred feet lower than they are today and Asia and Alaska were connected by a bridge of dry land more than a thousand miles in width. The higher sea levels that followed the Ice Age have covered that bridge, leaving the two continents separated by the narrow Bering Strait.

Exactly when humans crossed Beringia, as the land bridge is known, is still a matter of discussion. What is certain is that it first occurred more than 12,000 years ago. These early American Indians rapidly spread throughout the Americas. In North America, including Florida, these ancient people lived by roaming over large tracts of land hunting game and by gathering plants and catching small animals. Among the animals they hunted were elephants—mammoths—as well as many other species, some of which are now extinct.

The Florida of the Paleoindians would not be recognizable to you or me. Lowered sea levels meant that the coasts were much farther out than they are today, especially along the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, Florida’s land area was about twice what it is today; modern Pinellas Peninsula where St. Petersburg is situated was some 50 miles from the Paleoindian shoreline.

Lower sea levels and massive glaciers created a climate that was much drier; ground water levels in the interior of the state were greatly below what they are today. Florida was cool and arid; the springs, lakes, rivers, and other wetlands so important at present did not exist. There were some fluctuations in climate, with slightly wetter conditions replacing drier ones, but it always was much more arid than it is in modern times.

More arid conditions meant that a different array of animals and plants was present. Some of those animals, like mammoths, Pleistocene horses, and a now-extinct species of bison, had prospered during the Ice Age, but would disappear as the climate warmed and they fell prey to human hunters. Typical vegetation included plants which could live in the dry conditions; scrub oaks, pine forests, open grassy prairies, and savannahs were most common. In the restricted localities where water was present plants better suited to wetter conditions were found. Because the climate did fluctuate, the vegetative communities present in any one location fluctuated over time.

When the Paleoindians first lived in Florida it was during one of the more arid periods. How did the climate affect their way of life? The answer to that question explains in large part why Paleoindian artifacts are found in the river bottoms of the northern half of Florida.

The Paleoindians, like ourselves, needed water to drink and for other necessities. Because water was in short supply, the places where water was available drew the Paleoindians. These same watering holes attracted animals as well. In Florida such water sources were found in the limestone catchment basins of northern Florida. Although limestone formations are found throughout Florida, it is in the northern half of the state that limestone is common on or very near the land surface. Water from rain or ground seepage collected in pockets in the limestone, forming water holes not terribly unlike the watering holes found today in parts of Africa.

At the time of the Paleoindians what are now the Ichetucknee, Aucilla, Santa Fe, and other northern Florida rivers were not flowing rivers but series of small limestone catchment basins or watering holes. At times, perhaps during slightly less arid times, surface water also collected where clay or marl deposits provided somewhat impermeable catchments. Water also could be found in a few very deep sinkholes fed during wetter intervals by springs.

But over time the most consistent watering holes were those in the northern half of the state where the limestone formations reached the surface of the ground and formed catchments. That region is from Tampa Bay north through the western half of peninsular Florida into the panhandle to the Chipola River. Such formations also extend out into what is today the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, but was then dry land. It is this limestone region of Florida that drew the Paleoindians.

The same oases that provided humans with water also were used by animals. Consequently, not only were watering holes places where people camped, they were sites where animals were ambushed, butchered, eaten, and their remains discarded along with other debris discarded by the Paleoindians. Today these camps are river bottoms and in sinkholes. Over two and a half millennia there must have been thousands of such camps and kill sites. It is no wonder Paleoindian-age tools and butchered animal bones are found in those rivers and sinkholes.

Now we know who the Paleoindians were and why we find their artifacts and debris in inundated archaeological sites in Florida. What else have we learned about them? Although artifacts picked up from rivers and sinkholes have been important for understanding where Paleoindians once lived and what their environment was like, other types of information must come from the excavation of sites. But if most Paleoindian camps today are underwater, how can they be excavated? The answer: go in after them. This is exactly what researchers in Florida are doing, combining scuba diving and archaeology.

At the present time the largest of these underwater Paleoindian projects, the Aucilla River Prehistory Project, is taking place in the river of the same name, one of northern Florida’s many limestone-bottomed rivers. Under the auspices of the Florida Museum of Natural History and directed by Dr. S. David Webb, the Aucilla River Prehistory Project has located nearly 40 inundated Paleoindian sites in a short stretch of the river.

Webb and his research team were originally drawn to the site by reports of Paleoindian tools and animals bones being found there. A short distance away in the Wacissa River which empties into the Aucilla, sport divers had found a Bison antiquus skull (a now extinct species of large bison) with a broken stone point in it, dramatic evidence for Paleoindians and Pleistocene animals having lived there at the same time.

The excavations in the Aucilla River have yielded seeds and rind fragments from wild gourds, evidence that Paleoindians were collecting a plant not previously known to even have been in Florida at such an early time. Preserved hickory nuts have been found, as have carved wooden stakes, perhaps items associated with small, temporary tent-like structures or lean-tos.

The Aucilla River underwater excavations also are providing new information on the animals hunted by the Paleoindians. Analysis of growth rings of mammoth tusks suggest that these animals may have been moving seasonally from north to south and back again. That raises an interesting possibility: did the Paleoindians move with the herds, following them as they made their seasonal treks northward in summer and southward in winter?

An offshoot of Webb’s team’s excavations is information about the diet of these giant creatures. Hundreds of samples of elephant digesta, the remains of the plants eaten and then defecated by the animals while standing in the watering holes, have been preserved. Plant fibers in the digesta give clues not only to the elephants’s diet, but are indicators of the climate as well. Scientists have even extracted elephant hormones from the digesta!

Some day comparisons of digesta samples and skeletons might even shed light on the extinction of the elephants. Both pre-Paleoindian samples and samples from Paleoindian occupation are known. Evidence of stress caused by over-hunting may show up in the latter, perhaps in dietary changes, in comparisons of bone densities, or in the ages of the animals hunted. For instance, as herds became smaller and animals harder to find, the Paleoindians may have become less selective in the animals they hunted, seeking to kill not only easy prey—youngsters or weaker individuals—but healthy adults as well. Only a few short years ago studies such as these would have been unthinkable.

Collecting the Ichetucknee

As an undergraduate student assistant in the Florida State Museum, then located in the Seagle Building in downtown Gainesville, one of my duties was to write catalogue numbers on the many objects of the Simpson Collection. It was definitely menial labor, but I became very interested in the collection, assembled by the Simpson family of High Springs, Florida, and later donated to the Museum.

Thirty years have passed and today I am back at the Museum, which has a new name and is in a new building. I often have occasion to refer to artifacts in the Simpson collection, using the very numbers I wrote three decades ago. Of great importance are the many bone tools from the Ichetucknee River.

Recently, I ran across a charming article written by Mrs. H. H. Simpson, Sr., and published in 1935: “Until the summer of 1927 our collection consisted of flint and stone implements, shell ornaments and pottery, but in June of that year began the addition of a section that to us is more interesting, if possible, than any of the others. At that time we found, by accident, a clear river [the Ichetucknee] about sixteen miles from our home. I would have to be an artist to describe the beauty of the place. At all times the river is perfectly transparent. In the sandy portions of the bed of the river vari-colored grasses grow, waving back and forth, the different colors blending and forming a beautiful underwater moving picture in the swift current.... The day we found it we waded in the clear water close to the bank, and could see, out in the deeper water, pockets in the rocky bottom which were full of bones of different shapes and sizes. Swimming out and diving Clarence brought up handfuls of the material for examination. Some of the smaller pieces were smooth, and shaped as though made by hand but they were such small fragments that we couldn’t arrive at a definite conclusion. We returned on a second trip hoping to find some large pieces of what we suspected were bone implements of a vanished race of people. As we stood on the bank and watched him, Clarence dived again and again. In shallow water he picked the bones up with his toes, which have been trained to serve him for various purposes beside the ordinary use of toes. Finally we saw him make a high leap, and run toward shore as fast as he could. Racing to where we stood, and taking a small black object out of his mouth, he exclaimed, excitedly: ‘Now, I know these things are handmade!’ Upon examining it we found it to be a upper section of a bone artifact, ornamented with lines at the top.... We were overjoyed” (Hobbies, 1935, 40[4], pp. 93-94).


Editor's Note: This article is excerpted from "Ancient Floridians" chapter of Florida's Indians from Ancient Times to the Present, by Jerald T. Milanich, published by University Press of Florida in 1998.