Aboriginal Settlement

Aboriginal Settlement

Aboriginal Settlement in the Apalachee Region of Florida

by Michael Wisenbaker

Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research, CARL Archaeological Survey

Tallahassee, Florida 1998

(Reprinted from Florida Geological Survey Special Publication No. 46)

Abstract: This paper discusses types of archaeological sites presently found within the Woodville Karst Plain and the adjoining Tallahassee Hills, collectively known as the Apalachee Region. Sites here range in age from Paleo-Indian (12,000 to 10,000 B.P.) to mid-20th century historic sites. They vary in type and function from burial mounds to small special use sites. The karst features, such as sinkholes and springs, would have been especially attractive to Native Americans in that they provided not only water during times of lower water tables, but also exposed resources such as chert from which they fashioned many of their tools. Sinkholes and springs also attracted animals and could have been used for ambushes and trap falls by aboriginal inhabitants. Conversely, the sandy soils in the karst plain were less attractive to later Indians that depended on agriculture, since the red clay hills to the north were much more productive in terms of growing crops such as corns, beans and squash. Another intriguing possibility of shallower portions of springs and sinks in the karst plain, is that some may have served as rock shelters during times of lower water tables. These kinds of sites should result in excellent preservation of organic materials. Unlike the river bottoms in Florida that have been plundered by collectors for many years, the underground streams and chambers remain relatively undisturbed. Thus, many stratified sites with in situ cultural remains are likely to occur within such environmental settings.

Paleo-Indians began trickling into the Apalachee region of Florida, the area between the Ochlockonee and Aucilla rivers, about 12,000 years ago. Sites from this period, which lasted about 2,000 years, are more rare than those of later periods. The state’s climate and ecosystems were much different then, with extensive grasslands interspersed with woodland hammocks. Temperatures were more uniform throughout the year, characterized by cooler summers and warmer, non-freezing winters. Mammoths, mastodons, camels, sabercats, dire wolves, giant sloths and short-faced bears roamed the coastal plain in search of food, water and mates before widespread extinction eliminated them sometime before the end of the Pleistocene epoch about 10,000 years ago.

Sea level was lower (from 115 feet 12,000 years ago to 40 feet 8,000 years ago) at this time. This resulted in Florida being close to twice its current size when Paleo-Indians first arrived in the state. Rainfall amounts were much less than now and fresh water was not nearly as readily available because of lower water tables due to less precipitation and reduced sea levels. Paleo-Indians, therefore, would have been more limited on the present land surface as to where they could have subsisted and settled since fresh water was crucial to their survival. Conversely, some areas now underwater provided additional areas for them to live.

Due to the state’s acidic soils, few organic materials are preserved in terrestrial archaeological sites. Fortunately, the alkaline waters of springs, sinkholes and karst windows conserve a whole range of organic remains that can be radiocarbon dated and studied to add to our knowledge of prehistory. Without organic material such as bone or wood, sites cannot be radiocarbon dated. On the other hand, prehistoric sites can still be dated using non-perishable artifacts

Woodville Karst Plain Project