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Stone Tools, Butchered Mastodon at Prehistoric Site in Florida Confirm Pre-Clovis Peopling of the Americas

Texas A&M University Ph.D. student Neil Puckett surfaces with the limb bone of a juvenile mastodon. | Brendan Fenerty

Radiocarbon dating of a prehistoric archeological site in Florida suggests that 14,550 years ago, hunter-gatherers butchered or scavenged a mastodon next to a small pond. The findings, based on a four-year study of the Page-Ladson archaeological site in Florida and published in the 13 May issue of the journal Science Advances, provide a rare glimpse of the earliest human occupation in the American Southeast. 

“These people were hunter gatherers, mobile on the landscape. They knew how the landscape worked, and may have followed large animals’ migration patterns from watering hole to watering hole,” Jessi Halligan, assistant professor of anthropology at Florida State University and co-author of the study said in a AAAS teleconference.

The Clovis are humans widely believed to be the “first Americans” — much archeological research suggests their migration to the North American continent dates back to approximately 13,000 years ago.

Despite genetic evidence from modern Native American people that people were traveling to the Americas before Clovis, the archaeological record of human habitation in the region between 14,000 and 15,000 years ago is sparse. However, the long-held belief that Clovis represented the first people to enter the Americas is being overturned by new evidence from rare early sites.

The Page-Ladson site, a deep sinkhole in the Aucilla River containing stone tools and mastodon bones, is one of just a handful of archaeological gold-mines in the Americas harboring evidence of a pre-Clovis occupation. 

The site was first investigated from 1983 to 1997 and the original investigators reported finding eight stone artifacts associated with butchered mastodon remains, from a deposit radiocarbon dated to around 14,400. However, questions were raised about the geological context, the way the artifacts got into the older sediments, and whether or not the cut marks on the mastodon tusk were made by humans.

Halligan, along with Michael Waters, professor of anthropology and director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University, along with a team of experts, returned to Page-Ladson in 2012 to reevaluate the archaeological evidence that lay undisturbed in the river bed; taking care to recover artifacts directly from the sediments, and to comprehensively re-analyze the site to confirm that it dates to 14,550 years ago.

The underwater excavation of the Page-Ladson site in the Aucilla River, FL. | James Waggoner

Aucilla River is a murky, blackwater river, darkly stained by vegetation, and in order to see the site, the teams’ specially trained divers were equipped with headlights mounted to helmets and underwater lasers as they descended into the ink-black, 30-foot deep water.

The excavation team found a stone knife, deposited mastodon dung, and a mastodon tusk. These artifacts tell the story of what was likely the butchering or scavenging of a mastodon next to a pond in a bedrock sinkhole within the Aucilla River.

The radiocarbon ages of these artifacts, along with those from other sites like Monte Verde in Chile, show that people were living in both hemispheres of the Americas at least 14,550 years ago, and confirms genetic predictions for the timing of the arrival of humans into the Americas.

Moreover, microscopic tracking of Sporormiella (a fungus often found on animal dung) in sediments at the site, along with other evidence from Page-Ladson sediment samples, indicate that hunter-gatherers along the Gulf Coastal Plain in North America likely coexisted with and used large animals for at least 2,000 years before these animals became extinct around 12,600 years ago.

These new findings from Page-Ladson highlight the fact that much of the earliest record of human habitation of the American Southeast lies submerged and buried in unique underwater settings like the Aucilla River, which passes through Florida on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. This record can only be accessed through underwater investigation, which, if undertaken with precision and care, should reveal a rich and abundant pre-Clovis record for the American Southeast, the researchers say.