Category Archives: Archaeology, Paleontology, and History

Our natural north Florida landscape contains many links to this area’s ancient past. Rivers like the Wacissa and Aucilla, for instance, are full of Paleo-Indian archaeological sites. One of those sites, the Aucilla’s Page Ladson, was recently dated to 14,500 years ago. This is earlier than people had been thought to have been in Florida, and is challenging notions about human migration into the Americas. Florida waterways may contain further clues to the early settlement of our continent.

In some cases, Florida waterways expose fossils from millions of years ago, as we saw along the Apalachicola River at Alum Bluff.

Underwater archeologists excavate the Ryan-harley site on the lower Wacissa River.

Seeing the Ice Age Wacissa Through Artifacts and Fossils

Last week, we met Morgan Smith’s team and got to know their archeological sites on the Silver River.  Today, we’ll revisit their Wacissa River site, see some of the artifacts and fossils they’ve found, and learn what they can tell us about ice age Florida.   We’ll also look ahead to potential off shore digs.

Special thanks to Shawn Joy, Morgan Smith, and Matt Vinzant of Karst Underwater Research for letting us use their underwater footage.  Morgan’s research is sponsored by the Felburn Foundation, Center for the Study of the First Americans, Texas A&M University, and the PaleoWest Foundation. He would like to thank the Silver River State Park, Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Subscribe to receive more videos and articles about the natural wonders of our area.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU Public Media

In the video above, we visit three archeological sites on two rivers.  When you watch footage from each sites, one sticks out as the most visually striking.  It’s an underwater cavern at the head spring of the Silver River, and it’s full of mammoth bones.  It looks like a cool place to explore.  But it’s also the site with the least scientific value. Continue reading

Morgan Smith, in full scuba gear, descends into Silver Springs' (Florida) head spring, also known as Mammoth Spring.

Underwater Archeology in Florida Part 1 | Silver River Mammoths

Last year, an archeological site on the Aucilla River made international news when an artifact was found in sediment radiocarbon dated to 14,550 years ago.  This makes it one of the oldest sites in North America, further evidence that people were here earlier than once believed.  We catch up with the research team behind that find.  Our area is a hotbed for underwater archeology; in fact, our many waterways might be our greatest archeological asset.

Special thanks to Shawn Joy, Morgan Smith, and Matt Vinzant of Karst Underwater Research for letting us use their underwater footage.  Morgan’s research is sponsored by the Felburn Foundation, Center for the Study of the First Americans, Texas A&M University, and the PaleoWest Foundation. He would like to thank the Silver River State Park, Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Subscribe to receive more videos and articles about the natural wonders of our area.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU Public Media

“Ocala famous, baby!” Shawn says as he and Morgan look over the cover of the Ocala Star Banner.  In one photo, the two of them are beneath the Silver River in scuba gear, under the headline “Unearthing History”.  Excavating a submerged mammoth kill site might be as glamorous as prehistoric archeology gets, and it looks good on the newsstand. Continue reading

A Geologist’s View of the Apalachicola River | Shark Fossils and Rocks

MegaThis week’s musical guest on Local Routes is Taller Trees, who perform their song Old As Earth.  That’s kind of the theme of this video as well.  In it, we look at rocks and fossils with geologist Harley Means.  He shows us what the old earth around the Apalachicola River tells us about its ancient past.

Music in this video was provided by Chris Matechik.  You can catch his band, The Flatheads, playing in and around Apalachicola.  The RiverTrek kayak trip featured in this story is a fundraiser for Apalachicola Riverkeeper.

Subscribe to receive more videos and articles about the natural wonders of our area.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU Media

Alum Bluff was once Apalachicola Bay.  Currently, it towers above the Apalachicola River, 84 miles from the coast.  Florida’s largest geologic outcropping is a peek under the skin of the earth, eroded into view by the river.  Here, we can see millions of years of shifting shorelines and animals long gone.  And by we, I mean geologist Harley Means.  He sees these things, and he was nice enough to interpret them for us on RiverTrek 2016.

Continue reading

Is Artifact Collecting a Threat to Archeology?

In early November, WFSU-TV aired a segment titled “Amateur Archeologist vs. Looter: A Matter of Context?”  The video featured proponents of a program resembling the defunct Isolated Finds, which let avocational (amateur) archeologists purchase a permit to collect artifacts that had eroded into waterways from their sites.  Since the piece aired, new legislation has been introduced into the Florida House and Senate which would enact such a program.  In the video below, we talk to professional archeologists and an avocational opposed to rebooting the Isolated Finds program, including the man who oversaw its previous incarnation.


This segment aired on WFSU-TV’s Local Routes on February 4.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
A Simpson point found in Wakulla Springs State Park. Such points have been dated between 8 - 9,000 years old, and have been found locally in the Wacissa and Aucilla Rivers.

A Simpson point found in Wakulla Springs State Park. Such points have been dated between 8 – 9,000 years old, and have been found locally in the Wacissa and Aucilla Rivers. Photo provided by Dr. James Dunbar.

“We’re not in the artifact collecting business,” says Dr. Glen Doran.  “We’re in the information collecting business.”  To Dr. Doran and the two men seated next to him, a well preserved paleolithic spear point is a puzzle piece, just like the seeds, bone fragments, and chert flakes around where the point was found.  While it might be exciting to be the first person to hold it in several thousand years, to archeologists, the story of that tool’s creator is more exciting.  New bills would allow Florida citizens to take and keep artifacts found underwater and “out-of-context,” that is, not buried in an archeological site.  If passed, Doran and his associates fear an ensuing “gold rush” that would decimate the state’s rich historic and prehistoric resources.

Continue reading

Amateur Archeologist vs. Looter: A Matter of Context?

The WFSU Ecology Blog was built on two pillars- communicating scientific knowledge about the natural world, and encouraging people to actively participate in it.  When it comes to archeology in Florida, these ideals are at odds.  Below is an attempt to stimulate discussion on the role of amateur- or avocational- archeologists in our state.  It is a first attempt to capture the full complexity of the issue, which we’ll continue to explore as we  cover archeology in the area.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Much like citizen scientists often lead researchers to new finds, the video above originated not with the producer, but with the audience.  It was part of a larger response to a pair of blog posts I wrote on underwater excavation in the Wacissa River.  Many people were excited about the potential new information gained on the lives of early Floridians.  Others were less happy about quotes I included from the researcher and a retired FWC officer about protecting the site from looters.  Looking over the comments section of that first post, there was a sense that many of them felt that archeology in Florida had become the domain of a privileged few.  These people feel that they should not be criminalized for pursuing their passion.  I felt that this rift was worth exploring.  I interviewed two parties for whom Florida’s paleo-history is a passion.  Their argument: not all artifacts found in the water are of scientific value, and citizens have a right to collect those pieces. Continue reading

Underwater Archeology | Excavating the Wacissa River

We dive into the Wacissa River with a team of scuba-diving archeologists.  What did they find?  And what do their findings mean within the larger picture of prehistoric Florida?  Read on.  Big thanks to David Ward and Robert Daniels of the Aucilla River Group for helping us arrange the shoot and transporting the crew to the site.  And thanks to Hot Tamale, whose music is featured in the video.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Some time ago, possibly about 12,000 years or so, a group of hunters stopped by the Wacissa River and made some tools.  They’re not likely to have self-identified as members of the Suwannee culture group, though that’s how archeologists classify them based on the way they crafted their spear points.  These paleolithic humans left a mess of bone and rock on what may or may not have been a riverbank at the time.  That refuse is of interest  to Morgan Smith, a PhD. student at Texas A & M University. Continue reading

Archeology on the Wacissa: Solving Underwater Mysteries

The video for this EcoAdventure will air in September as part of a new WFSU program.  What segments will air alongside this and other EcoAdventures?  That wasn’t a rhetorical question.  Come in and have a meal, on us, here at the station.  We want this to feel like your show, and we’re listening to your suggestions.  Conversations start in two weeks.  Spots are limited; we want small groups so that we can hear what you have to say.  Visit the WFSU Listens page to sign up for one of five sessions.
Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

We were traveling down an undisclosed section of the Wacissa River.  Robert Daniels, the retired Florida Fish and Wildlife game warden who transported us in his jon boat, thought our hosts should have been less explicit in describing their location.  He preferred to say “the Aucilla River basin” on camera.  He was taking us to an archeological site being excavated under the clear water of the river, and he’s fiercely protective of the watershed’s sites.  There are dozens of them in the spring-fed Wacissa and black water Aucilla, many of which, along with other Florida sites, are challenging notions about early human settlement in North America.  Robert worries about looters, and it’s a legitimate concern.  He caught his fair share of them while working with FWC. Continue reading

Canoeing the Aucilla: A Red Hills River Steeped in History

Video: We travel down the Aucilla River, the eastern boundary of the Red Hills region, the dark water of which preserves some of the nation’s oldest archeological sites. It’s also a challenging kayak and canoe trail.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Until paddling the Aucilla River during the production of this video, I had never had to portage on a river.  For non-paddlers, portage is when you take your canoe or kayak out of the water to navigate around an obstacle.  And on that day, there were plenty of obstacles.  The Aucilla River Paddling Trail Guide recommends the river be paddled by those with intermediate to advanced skills.  Fallen trees and river bends, sometimes in a tricky proximity, had us pivoting at sharp angles.  This was less of a challenge for the three kayakers on our trip, but David Ward and I each ferried a photographer on heavier canoes.  If you’re looking for a Florida river on which to peacefully coast, this isn’t it.  This is a more adventurous river; and one with thousands of years of human usage. Continue reading

Turtle seen on Slave Canal, Florida kayaking trip.

Paleo River Adventure on Slave Canal

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Video: Slave Canal EcoAdventure

Much like Slave Canal connects the Aucilla and Wacissa Rivers, this post serves as a bridge between our oyster reef and salt marsh videos (not that we’re done talking about Apalachicola by a long shot).  One of my favorite things on this blog is when we can make connections between rivers and the coast.  Of course, rivers provide much needed nutrients and fresh water to the estuarine ecosystems I just mentioned.  But to the many cultures that predate european settlement of our area, they served as the equivalent of Woodville or Crawfordville Highway.  It’s how they got to their Forgotten Coast seafood.
Old Growth Cypress Tree off of Slave Canal

An old growth Cypress tree fortunate not to have been logged. Judging from the size of its base, Joe Davis estimates that it could be as much as 1,000 years old.

Slave Canal is one of those places I started hearing about a lot when we started doing our EcoAdventure videos.  As soon as you get into the braided channels of the lower Wacissa, it’s easy to see why it’s one of the popular river expeditions in north Florida.  You’re paddling in a canopied river swamp where people have been paddling for several thousand years.  And minus some old growth cypress trees that have been logged in the last century or so, it looks much the same as it did when various native groups made use of the waterway to make seafood runs to the coast.  But it doesn’t look quite as it did when people first got there.

Evidence excavated at the Page/ Ladson and Ryan/ Harley sites points to people inhabiting what is now the Aucilla Wildlife Management Area for 12,000 years or longer.  At that time, Florida Fish and Wildlife’s Joe Davis told us, the ice ages were ending, sea level was lower, and the coast was further away.  Those first men and women walked on dry land where our canoes and kayaks passed over.  I can almost envision paleolithic man standing on one of the many ancient midden mounds as everything happens around him in time-lapse mode.  Rivers fill and flow to the Gulf, mastodons vanish, and different cultures come and go, piling shell and bone on to that same mound.  Pretty heavy stuff to think about on a fun Florida kayaking trip.

Slave Canal signSo how do you get there?  Here are links to a couple of maps. Florida Department of Environmental Protection put this PDF together with driving directions to two put in points along the Wacissa Paddling Trail. One is for the headwaters of the Wacissa, though Goose Pasture is closer by ten miles. It depends on how long you want to kayak or canoe. It’s about five miles from Goose Pasture to Nutall Rise on the Aucilla.  Goose Pasture is also a camp ground (first come first served, call 800-226-1066 in Florida or 386-362-1001 for more information).  Scroll down in the PDF for advice in finding the entrance to Slave Canal (hint- stay to the right). If you don’t find it amongst the braided channels of the lower Wacissa, you won’t find your take out at Nutall Rise.  You may also want a map you can take with you on the water.  The Rivers of AWE (Aucilla, Wacissa, and Econfina) Explorer’s Guide is available on the Wildlife Foundation of Florida’s web site.  It has detailed maps of the rivers with tips and suggestions, and is printed on water resistant paper.  It’s the map that Liz uses at the start of the piece.

Slave Canal is our third EcoAdventure on the Aucilla Wildlife Management Area.  We paddled the upper Wacissa and got some underwater footage of Big Blue Spring.  We also hiked the Florida National Scenic Trail along the Aucilla Sinks, where the Aucilla River goes intermittently underground, peeking out in “Karst windows.”  The WMA is a marvelous synthesis of history and prehistory, wildlife, and geology.  And, well, it’s full of these cool looking places.

Nigel Foster paddles Slave Canal

This is Nigel Foster, of Nigelkayaks. This link is to the trip gallery on his website.  As you can see, he’s been a few places.

Russell Farrow on Slave Canal

And this is Russell Farrow, Liz’s other guest. Russell is a co-owner of Sweetwater Kayaks in St. Petersburg, and you can see he’s been a few places as well. One of his passions is getting kids into the outdoors (and away from their screens).

Oyster shell on Slave Canal mound

I do one thing on this blog all year that takes place away from the coast, but I can’t escape oyster shells. For how many thousands of years have people eaten oysters on the Forgotten Coast? This shell was on Coon Bottom Mound, the largest mound on Slave Canal.

Turtle seen on Slave Canal, Florida kayaking trip.

I’m looking forward to the next EcoAdventure, whatever that might be.  If you have any suggestions, leave a comment.

Music in the video by Philippe Mangold.

Shells, Buried History, and the Apalachee Coastal Connection

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150IGOR chip- habitat 150Have you ever found oyster shells in the dirt of your backyard?  If you have and you live in Tallahassee’s Myers Park neighborhood, then you might be looking at the remains of a powerful native village that rose to prominence over 500 years ago. Continue reading