Underwater archaeology, Paleoindian origins, and histories of settlement

By Dr. Michael K. Faught

These are exciting times we live in, at least for those of us curious about how people came into the Americas. Last year, American Antiquity — the premier publication of the American archaeological community— published an article by a group of distinguished scholars that accepted Monte Verde as the earliest Early Man site in the New World (Meltzer et al. 1997). This is to say that they accepted the artifacts found there as unequivocally man-made, that the stratigraphic position of the artifacts was not disturbed, and that the radiocarbon dates were associated with the artifacts and not contaminated by natural factors. Other early sites have been proposed and argued about over the years, but Monte Verde holds a rare distinction, along with the Folsom site in New Mexico in 1926, of being a watershed event.

It is intriguing, however, that Monte Verde is in Chile, at the wrong end of the world from where such an early site would be expected. This questions older models of migration pathways and chronological estimates. The fact is that the story of migrating Paleoindians coming through an inland corridor between lobes of glacial ice—what we call the Ice-Free Corridor Model—has not held up to accumulating evidence for Paleoindian site distributions and radiocarbon control. We don’t have an array of earlier sites in the north, with younger sites spreading out progressively to the south.

So what does all this have to do with underwater archaeology? Well, several researchers have noted the possibilities of a coastal pathway for migrating Paleoindians, a concept first made palatable to the archaeological community by Knut R Fladmark in the late 1970s. This coastal pathway is appealing now, because a coastal migration route may explain why Paleoindian sites are so dispersed early on. The idea is that Paleoindians would have migrated down the western coast of North America and come into the continent from various places, coming across the isthmus of Panama, and down into South America, very early. Adding to the appeal of this concept is the fact that most of the land masses where this coastal pathway would have taken place—the continental shelves—are now submerged and we don’t know very much about what’s out there. Therefore, prehistoric underwater archaeology sits in a unique position to address the early history of Paleoindian settlement.

Another interesting problem raised by the Monte Verde site, and of Paleoindian studies in other areas, is the realization that there may be more than one kind of Paleoindian on the scene at the end of the Pleistocene. Many readers of the Aucilla River Times are probably familiar with “Clovis” and other varieties of fluted points that are distinctive markers of early people in the New World. As it turns out, however, there are other early sites in the Western United States, and in Middle and South America, that have different kinds of chipped stone tools, and suggest to some researchers that there were separate groups of people. Examples of these other tool assemblages include Western Stemmed Point assemblages in the western United States, Lerma in Middle America and El Jobo in South America. Monte Verde is one of these other kinds of sites, probably a representative of El Jobo, which strengthens the concept of people with technical and cultural backgrounds different than those of fluted point groups, as Meltzer et al. brought out in their important article. But let’s ignore these other kinds of sites for the moment, and concentrate on the origins of Clovis (fluted point) Culture, and its relationship with underwater archaeology.

In the last issue of the Aucilla River Times, I presented a map showing the distribution of Fluted points in North America. The map showed several areas of the United States having dense clusters of Fluted points, and other areas having very few. Most of these diagnostic points are known from, or at least recorded from, the Eastern portions of the United States, even though there are significant clusters of points known from the Southern Plains and California. Many of us equate these points with a group, or a Culture, of Paleoindians that spoke dialects of the same language stock, and resembled each other biologically. But the point distribution map combines about a thousand years of evolution, and doesn’t really tell us where these people came in first, or when that was, or how the pattern of their settlement evolved and expanded over time.

So, what is the evidence for the timing and progress of fluted point entry in the continent? There are many Paleoindian sites that have been radiocarbon dated, and I believe they offer a sample for modeling this trajectory. In my dissertation research I compiled radiocarbon data from 72 sites in North, Middle and South America. Of these, forty represented “well dated” sites, that is sites with more than one radiocarbon date associated with the fluted points. Having multiple radiocarbon assessments means that the dates can be averaged, and offer more confidence. These “well dated” sites are in the High Plains, the Southern Plains, and in the Far Northeast.

These data show that the earliest fluted point sites are in the Southern Plains. Four sites (Aubrey and Lubbock Lake, in Texas, Blackwater Draw, in New Mexico, and Domebo, in Oklahoma) span the period from 11,500 years ago to 11,000 radiocarbon years ago. Aubrey is at the early end of this range (11, 565 +/- 95), and the others cluster between 11,200 to 11,000 BP. Fluted point sites in the desert Southwest, the High Plains, and possibly the Great Lakes return dates of 10,900 to 10,800 BP. In the East and far Northeast the earliest dates accumulate after 10,600 radiocarbon years ago. Fluted point sites known from South America date after 10,800, while those known from Alaska, and the Ice Free Corridor appear to date sometime after 10,500. The hypothesis that I am proposing is that the earliest fluted point sites are in the Southern Plains of North America, and later sites radiate away from this center.

In the last Aucilla River Times article I pointed out that the gaps in dating fluted points were in the Northwest and California, the Great Lakes, the confluences of the Mississippi / Tennessee / Ohio drainages and in the Florida karst regions. You can see better now why it is important to know the radiocarbon data from these places. Even though there are four early sites in the Southern Plains, one well dated site in the High Plains is also an early fluted point site (Colby in Wyoming at 11,032). Nevertheless, Aubrey in Texas, is comfortably in the lead for earliest fluted point site, and so there is a simple problem to solve. Did fluted point Paleoindians come in through the Ice Free Corridor and spread out south, somehow ending up in the Southern Plains early on, or did they come in from the Gulf of Mexico, and spread north?

If the current evidence for the earliest fluted point sites crudely approximates the actual dispersal of fluted point groups, then their dispersal pattern is not what we expected. Can it be true that people were out at the coastline back then, and that their sites were submerged by sea level rise? Were they traveling along these coastlines using boats? Did they procure fish, shell fish, birds and other coastal resources along the way? Is it possible that our vision of the past is veiled because the Clovis Shoreline is currently submerged?

There are places where clusters of fluted points occur near coastlines with continental shelves, places where we might expect to find evidence offshore. These include Northeastern Alaska, Southern California, the Gulf of California, the east coast of Texas, virtually the entire Eastern Seaboard, and right here in Northwestern Florida. There are early sites known from the offshore in Florida, a result of my field research there. But, so far, these sites are later Paleoindian and Early Archaic of age. We still have a lot to do to discover and excavate these important offshore sites. Florida is probably the area with greatest likelihood for Paleoindian discoveries underwater because of its unique set of regional features: high density of early sites onshore, not much sediment cover to deal with offshore, a relatively gentle marine environment, and institutional infrastructures for research diving at the Florida State University, the University of Florida, and other institutions (see “Universities Share Commitment to Underwater Archaeology”).

In addition to the continental shelves, there are other places where water is now deeper than it was at the end of the Pleistocene, where people could have left evidence on landscapes that are now inundated. Various natural lakes hold great potential for submerged sites. For example, the Great Lakes had lower levels at the end of the Pleistocene and high densities of Paleoindian sites, therefore sites may be found underwater there. Man-made lakes are also potential for discoveries of early sites, particularly in the Southeast and Middle America. Lake Alajuela (formerly Lake Madden) in Panama is a great example of a fluted point site submerged by the manmade lake. Al Goodyear’s underwater research at Big Pine Tree in South Carolina is also a fine example of managing an early archaeological record submerged by a manmade lake.

Rivers which contain submerged evidence are mostly in the Southeast, in the karst geology here. It has been known for many years now that Florida’s sinkholes, rivers, and lakes contain Paleoindian and Early Archaic sites. John Gifford’s University of Miami work in the cenote-like sinkhole at Little Salt Spring in Sarasota County is another example of research in these submerged settings. Of course, our own Aucilla River Prehistory Project conducts research in these submerged sites as well, and you can see why the project has spent so much effort in the elusive task of dating Clovis fluted point occupation. I don’t mean to imply that all the answers for Paleoindian migration, settlement, and subsistence activities can be resolved with data from underwater sites. Nevertheless, is should also be clear that important, new data might be obtained underwater. It is also true that these sites are difficult to find, excavate, and interpret. The ocean is a big place, and sites were altered by the rising sea levels, by wave and current action, and by thousands of years in a marine environment. Much time needs to be spent out at sea, and the methods and principles by which this is done need more development. We have a real opportunity in Florida to contribute to this nascent subdiscipline of underwater archaeology.

As I said, these are exciting times we live in. Acceptance of Monte Verde has called into question old models of migration, timing, and adaptation. Previous models of inland routes have not held up to accumulating evidence, and several researchers have noted the possibilities of now submerged coastal pathways for migrating Paleoindians. Prehistoric underwater archaeology has the potential to access and investigate sites that may contain clues regarding Paleoindian origins, and a better understanding of the history of their settlement.