Aboriginal Settlement in the Apalachee Region of Florida
Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research, CARL Archaeological Survey
(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
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—projectile points or pottery
types--that provide us with relative dates. For example,
Suwannee and Simpson points, long, lanced-shaped implements
worked on both sides that were used to tip spears and knives,
are diagnostic of the Paleo-Indian period.
Sites found thus far dating to
this period in the Woodville Karst Plain, first defined by
Hendry and Sproul and located in the southeastern portion of
the Apalachee region, include a kill in the Wacissa River of
an extinct Bison (Bison
antiquus) with a fragment of projectile point embedded in
its skull. Another bone from this animal yielded a radiocarbon
date of more than 11,000 years old. Other sites include the
Page-Ladson site in the Aucilla River, where remains of Ice
Age mammals along with Paleo-Indian and later period artifacts
have been found. One of the more notable sites is the Wakulla
Springs Lodge site, which represents the first stratified
Paleo-Indian/Early Archaic site recorded in northwest Florida.
The spring itself also has yielded Suwannee, Simpson and
Clovis points, along with 600 bone pins, mastodon, deer,
charred wood, tapir, giant armadillo, camel, horse and bison
remains mixed with recent objects. Wakulla was probably
nothing more than a sinkhole—as opposed to the major artesian
spring that it is today--at this time, since water tables were
much lower when these megafauna co-existed with humans in the
region. (For example, an extinct land tortoise [Geochelone
crassicutata] was found on a dry ledge about 85 feet below
the current water level at Little Salt Spring in Sarasota
County, with a wooden stake stuck in its shell. The stake
yielded a radiocarbon date of more than 12,000 years.)
Although it intrigues the public, the possibility that people
inhabited or used caves such as Wakulla and other nearby deep
tunnels is most unlikely since the conduits feeding the spring
are from 200 to 300 feet deep and have been filled with water
for the whole of human history.
Archaic cultures (10,000-2,500 B.P.) are normally divided into Early, Middle and Late periods in southeastern North America. During this time, the climate gradually become more humid. Sea level began rising, rapidly at first and then more slowly as glaciers melted. By approximately 5,000 years ago, water tables and ecological communities were becoming similar to those of today. Increasing populations of native Floridians become more sedentary as they began exploiting smaller territories. The diagnostic tools at this time were various forms of triangular-shaped projectile point/knives that manifested notched (such as Bolens), and later stemmed (such as Newnans) bases, for attaching these stone implements to shafts. At the beginning of the Early Archaic, it is believed that Indians switched from hand held spears to atl-atls or spear throwers to more effectively bring down game, which for the most part, were the same species as contemporary animals. The cumulative effects of these changes led to increased regionalization as native peoples began adapting to specific local resources.
Fiber-tempered pottery, which
was tempered with Spanish moss or strands of fiber from
palmetto, was invented near the end of the Archaic and thus
ceramics became another way to identify cultures. In the
Apalachee region, the people that made the first pots are
known by archaeologists as the Norwood culture. They decorated
their pottery by making stick impressions on its outer surface
before it was fired. Many large coastal shell middens date to
this time, although some sites have been inundated by rising
sea level and others have been destroyed by modern borrowing
activities and development.
The Woodland period (500
B.C.—A.D. 1,000) followed the Archaic. As this period
progressed, certain styles of decoration and kinds of
tempering agents of pottery vessels became more and more
distinct for given regions inhabited by discrete peoples.
Native Americans began burying their dead in mounds at this
time, often accompanied by elaborate grave goods, some from
faraway places. By about 2,500 years ago, Florida’s coastal
areas, including those in the Big Bend, had become optimal
habitat for oysters and other shellfish. Aboriginal
inhabitants were obviously attracted to these bountiful
resources common in estuaries along Apalachee Bay.
The Deptford culture (500
B.C.—A.D. 200) was the first expression of the Woodland
tradition in Florida. It was mainly a coastal occupation,
although some Deptford sites are located inland in the
interior valleys and other locales. The latter sites were
small and found underlying more recent ones. Much of their
ceramics were decorated by stamping vessel surfaces with
carved wooden paddles before the pieces were fired, leaving a
distinctive groove- or checked-stamped impressions on the
pottery. Also at this time, pottery was no longer tempered
with fibers, but instead with pastes such as quartz sands that
were mixed with the clays. Deptford economy centered on marine
resources, especially fish and shellfish. They primarily lived
in the coastal hammocks, but would make forays inland to
harvest nuts and berries where fruit-bearing plants were more
These people were followed by
the Swift Creek culture (A.D. 200-400). It was during this
time that villages were first established in significant
numbers in the interior forest and river valleys of the
eastern Panhandle, although Swift Creek sites can also be
found along the coast. Their ceramics were characterized by
complicated stamped pottery and are commonly found in the
Tallahassee (red clay) Hills, as delineated by Cooke. These
sites are especially prevalent in the river valley forest and
other fertile locales. This suggests that gardening may have
played a role in the Swift Creek economic system, although
evidence supporting cultivation remains sparse. Bone and stone
tools appear in greater numbers in their tool kits than during
the previous Deptford period.
The distribution of later Weeden Island (A.D. 400-1,000) sites in northwest Florida closely shadows Swift Creek sites, although Weeden Island sites are much more prevalent. These sites were concentrated around lakes Miccosukee and Iamonia. Pottery during the earlier phase of this culture was characterized by Swift Creek Complicated Stamped and Weeden Island plain wares. In the late Weeden Island period, Wakulla check-stamped pottery became the most prevalent decorated ceramic in non-mound settings. It developed about A.D. 750 and reflects the adoption of maize agriculture into the Weeden Island economic system. Such a change in subsistence had far reaching implications for native societies of the Panhandle, leading to changes that eventually evolved into the Fort Walton culture about A.D. 1000.
Fort Walton represented the
final major prehistoric period in southeastern North America
known as the Mississippian (1000-1600). The Fort Walton
Culture was not only the most politically complex, but also
supported the densest population of people in the state. They
practiced mound building, intensive agriculture and made
pottery in a variety of vessel shapes with many decorative
motifs, with some of the same styles found at other
Mississippian sites in the Southeast. Most of the incised
pottery featured curvilinear and rectilinear motifs, some of
which bore animal-head effigies. Fort Walton people cultivated
maize, beans, sunflower and squash and used wild plants such
as hickory nuts, acorns, persimmons, maypops, wild cherry, saw
palmetto berries, cabbage palm and chinquapin. Their sites are
located more inland than sites from previous periods since
their primary subsistence had shifted almost totally from
collected to cultivated plant foods, which thrived in the rich
At the time of Ponce de Leon’s arrival in Florida in 1513, there were about 50,000 Indians living in the Apalachee region surrounding Tallahassee. By the time the first Spanish Mission was established here, the Fort Walton complex had been replaced by Leon-Jefferson (1600-1700) ceramics, reflecting the rapid social change which resulted from contact with the Spanish. In addition to cultivating maize, beans and squash, these people, called Apalachees by the Spanish, fished, hunted and collected wild foods. They were eventually ravaged by European diseases and displaced by Creek Indians (1700-1840), who came down from Georgia. The Creeks that migrated into north Florida later became known as Seminoles.
Water was probably the most
significant variable in determining where prehistoric peoples
settled in the region. Most water that falls on the Woodville
Karst Plain or enters as streams from outside the area
immediately disappears into subsurface conduits, which results
in very few surface streams. The higher water levels in the
Apalachee region occur in perched aquifers in northern Leon
and Jefferson counties, and the lower in southern Leon and
Jefferson and in Wakulla counties in the karst plain, where
the water table is essentially the same as the potientometric
surface. Water level fluctuation in response to rainfall is
much less in the karst plain than in the Tallahassee Hills,
thus providing much more reliable, although in fewer
locations, water sources prior to 5,000 years ago.
Another important resource
found in the karst plain is chert—a mineral resembling
flint—that Indians used to make tools. A relatively thin zone
of chert, where limestone has been replaced by silica, appears
at the top of the Suwannee limestone in the Woodville Karst
Plain. The silica that formed the chert most likely came from
groundwater passing through and dissolving quartz and clays
then precipitating and replacing portions of the limestone.
Whereas limestone lies 100 feet or more beneath clastics in
the west, it reaches the surface in eastern portions of the
karst plain (Figure 1). From just below Lamont to about Nutall
Rise, limestone is almost continuously exposed along the banks
and in rapids as silicified limestone (chert) boulders in the
Aucilla River. It also outcrops in the Wacissa River from just
below its headwaters to its confluence with the Aucilla and
sporadically along the Gulf coast in southeast Wakulla and
southern Jefferson counties.
Soil types are yet another
significant variable in site selection and reflect past
biologic and geologic processes. Those soils present north of
the Cody Scarp (an outfacing escarpment representing the most
persistent topographic break in Florida), in the Tallahassee
Hills have been described as red, sandy-clay hills. These
loamy soils support lush natural vegetation. Their relative
impermeability have led to the development of many wet weather
ponds and lakes in the area. On the other hand, the soils of
the Woodville Karst Plain, located south of the Cody Scarp,
are described as loose, quartz sands that form a thin cover
over a limestone substrate, characterized by karst depressions
and sand dunes. Soil surveys of Leon, Jefferson and Wakulla
counties depict the soils in the karst plain as either subject
to drought and of low fertility or poorly-drained with a
tendency to remain wet in areas bearing organic hardpans.
Neither soil condition is conducive for growing crops. On the
other hand, the soil surveys reveal that the mostly
well-drained loamy soils in the Tallahassee Hills are
moderately well-suited for producing a variety of crops.
Although soil surveys were done for modern farmers, the
results are revealing when looking at Figure 2, which shows
that prehistoric people from the middle Woodland (Swift Creek)
onward preferred the richer soils in the clay hills to
locations in sandy karst plain. This graphic would be even
more striking except that the percent of land surveyed for
archaeological sites in Leon County 696/73.60 square miles is
twice that of Jefferson County 699/31.33 and five times
greater than that in Wakulla County (635/14.66).
Sites in the Apalachee region range in age from Paleo-Indian to mid-20th Century historic sites. They range in type and function from large ceremonial complexes with temple mounds to small special use sites. Features in the Woodville Karst Plain, such as sinkholes and springs, would have been especially attractive to early Native Americans in that they not only provided water during times of lower tables, but also exposed resources such as chert from which the Indians fashioned many tools. Moreover, seven of the state’s 27 first magnitude “springs” (Only three of which—Wakulla, Spring Creek Springs and Wacissa Springs group—are true springs, the other four--Natural Bridge Spring, St. Marks River Spring, Kini Spring and River Sink Spring--are either lost rivers or karst windows) lie within the Woodville Karst Plain. These and scores of other water-filled springs and sinkholes obviously attracted animals and could have been used for ambushes and trap falls by aboriginal inhabitants. On the other hand, the sandy soils in the area were less attractive to agriculturist such as the Fort Walton people, since the red clay hills to the north were much better suited for growing their crops.
Another intriguing possibility
in the karst plain, is that many shallower portions of caves,
such as the siphon tunnel of Little Dismal, portions of the
Leon Sinks Cave System, Chip’s Hole and McBride Slough Spring
cave, may have served as rock shelters during times of lower
water tables. These shallow aquatic caves also should provide
excellent preservation of organic materials. And unlike most
river bottoms in the area, which have been scavenged by rabid
artifact and fossil collectors for more than four decades, the
underground streams remain virtually free of human plundering.
Thus, unmolested stratified cultural remains await discovery
within these dark reaches.
In closing, many opportunities
abound for archaeologists trained to cave dive to conduct
research stemming from the ongoing exploration of openings
into the Woodville Karst Plain. Shallower portions (i.e., 70
feet or less) of water-filled sinks in the karst plain may
have served as rock shelters for Paleo-Indian and Early
Archaic peoples during times of lower tables. These sites have
long been hidden by the silts of time. Perhaps these submerged
caves may one day be surveyed for archaeological sites, since
they could help solve a plethora of mysteries about what human
life was like long before the arrival of Europeans in the
Apalachee region of Florida.
I would like to thank
Susan Harp, Melissa Memory, Frank Rupert, Louis Tesar, Vince
“Chip” Birdsong, Dee McDonald, Mary Glowacki, Roy Lett, Pam
Vojnovski and Marion Smith for their help on various aspects
of this paper and for preparing for the presentation at the
errors in form, facts or interpretation that may have been
introduced here, however, are the sole responsibility of the
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