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Florida's lost city of Atlantis

BY MARK RENZ

Just as that curmudgeon of a philosopher Henry David Thoreau journeyed inside his mind for two years at Walden Pond, my two weeks at the Aucilla River was a mental sojourn. But unlike Thoreau, who returned to civilization with many more answers than questions about why humans behave as they do, I came away even more curious about Paleo people and their relationship to their environment than when I first arrived at this remarkable river.

It is one thing to read about such ancient sites as the Aucilla holds, but to actually participate in underwater excavations as a volunteer and explore the remnants of this long-ago world firsthand is likened to diving in search of the lost city of Atlantis.

In spite of having permission to be there, I couldn't help but feel like I was trespassing as I drove onto the site. Who was I to come traipsing into the past, taking part in disturbing over 12,000 years of a buried way of life? I quickly assured myself that my intentions as an amateur, as well as those of the professionals I would soon be working with, were honorable.

We came here to better understand a way of life, one which is tied to us as intrinsically as the immediate generation before us. Because, like it or not, we are all interconnected by time and space, no matter where or when we were born.

I wish I had some kind of crystal ball that would allow me to gaze into the past. The Aucilla, as with many Florida rivers, didn't exist 12,000 Years ago. Instead, freshwater springs and water-filled sinkholes dotted the region. Animals and humans frequented these spots not only to drink, but to hunt one another.

At night I would squat next to a Paleo campfire and sample some of the local chef's mammoth chops, deer burgers, side-of-sloth or sabercat stew. After dinner, I would love to hear family fireside chats in whatever strange dialect they spoke.

How frightened where they about what lay beyond their campsite and the protection they received in armed numbers? Did they view themselves as the dominant life form for their world or as an equal, fighting for survival like all the other animals? What were the roles of the women and men as well as the children? What did they do when they were just goofing off? What games were played? Did they have a weatherman and was he as off-base as those on television today?

And what about their reverence for life? When they killed a mastodon, did it disturb them to see it die, even though they were killing for food and other necessities? Did they observe the social interaction between these gentle giants the way we do elephants today' Modern elephants have been seen standing guard over their dead and "burying" them by piling- leaves and twigs on their bodies. If the two kinds of Florida proboscidians' behavior patterns were similar, then mammoths and mastodons, like elephants, may have gone through a mourning process when one of their kind died.

I would also look into the future with that crystal ball and perhaps see my own culture studied by scientists. I personally can think of no greater contribution to humankind after I die than to have my bones, my work space, my living quarters, the tools I handle every day, whether they be a word processor, a tooth brush or an electric razor, studied under a future generation's microscope. Think what they can learn from our culture!

My first few work days at the site were not what I had expected, although it was challenging. In two-person teams each of us were asked to dive down to an oak tree submerged to a level just above the site and, with bow saw in hand, cut off the large overhanging branches that might later snag our dive gear as we worked.

Visibility was so poor you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. So one person sawed while the other held a powerful dive light which was driven by a generator on dry land. Breathing was accomplished not by tanks but by a Brownie Third Lung, which is a compressor that feeds fresh air to divers. The rest of the two weeks, as well as the two weeks spent working the site after I was gone, consisted of two-person, two-hour shifts excavating and collecting sediment samples every 20 centimeters to the bottom.

During excavations - conducted with a hand trowel - a bone pin, bifacial chopper tool, flint flake and unidentifiable point (stem was missing) turned up. However, since the items were not found wedged in place within sediments, but rather lying loose on the surface or sucked up in the debris-clearing dredge, it will be difficult to give them a precise date.

From the sediment samples, which sometimes contained seeds, leaves and twigs, scientists will be able to decipher weather patterns, determine when a plant or tree began growing in this area, and when it altered its form or died out altogether.

And then there was the mastodon graveyard in 30 feet of water. The sediments at that depth are 31,000 years old. That probably means the animal died then. But careful analysis of its context will be made to determine whether it may have been washed down from a higher and more recent elevation.

The crew itself was a hedgepodge of women and men from all over the United States, with a variety of backgrounds. (See "The Class of'95") They were from such places as Arizona, Illinois, Virginia, Georgia and Florida. Their occupations included everything from a welder to a veterinarian, dentist, soldier, dive instructor and undergraduate archaeology student. They were as young as 20 and as old as 71.

Once all the data for this projectare assimilated, papers are published and puzzles are pieced together, we should all know considerably more about Florida's first residents - and perhaps even about ourselves. As rhetorical as it may sound, who we are and how we became who we are, has a lot to do with who our ancestors were. The better we understand the mechanics of our past, the better equipped we will be to cope with the present and future.