New Clues Answer Questions to Early Civilization in the United States

Female archaeologist with mastadon bones.

Using radiocarbon techniques, researchers were able to date the artifacts origins to about 14,550 years ago. (Image: via Florida State University)

The discovery of a site, which dates back 14,550 years, shows that human civilizations existed in the southeastern United States much earlier than scientists previously believed by as much as 1,500 years.

According to a research team led by a Florida State University professor, the discovery of stone tools alongside mastodon bones in a Florida river now makes it the oldest known site of human life in the southeastern United States.

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Jessi Halligan, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology from Florida State University, said in a statement: “This is a big deal; there were people here. So how did they live? This has opened up a whole new line of inquiry for us as scientists as we try to understand the settlement of the Americas.”

There are sites all over North America that are around 13,200 years old. However, there are only around five in all of North and South America that are older. The archaeological site, called the Page-Ladson, was named after Buddy Page, a former Navy Seal diver, and was the first to bring the site to the attention of archaeologists in the 1980s and the Ladson family, who are the property owners.

This site on the Aucilla River — about 45 minutes from Tallahassee — is now the oldest known site of human life in the southeastern United States.
This site on the Aucilla River — about 45 minutes from Tallahassee — is now the oldest known site of human life in the southeastern United States. (Image: via Florida State University)

The site is 26 feet underwater in a sinkhole on the Aucilla River, near Tallahassee. Researchers James Dunbar and David Webb were the first to investigate the area from 1987 to 1997. They had retrieved eight stone tools and a mastodon tusk, which had cut marks. However, their findings were dismissed as they were considered too old to be real and were questionable as they were found underwater.

However, Daniel Fisher from the University of Michigan re-examined the tusk. He found that the deep parallel grooves on the tusk’s surface were caused by using stone tools to remove the tusk from the skull. This now shows the original interpretation was correct.

Humans in the United States earlier than believed

Fisher, who is the director of the U-M Museum of Paleontology and a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said in a statement: “These grooves are clearly the result of human activity and, together with new radiocarbon dates, they indicate that humans were processing a mastodon carcass in what is now the southeastern United States much earlier than was generally accepted.”

Fisher believes that the tusk could have been removed to access the edible tissue at its base. It is also understood that the ancient humans who lived in this area were known to use ivory to make weapons; he added: “It now appears that people were targeting disruption of this tissue when they cut into the sidewall of the tusk socket, leaving the set of transverse grooves. Each tusk this size would have had more than 15 pounds of tender, nutritious tissue in its pulp cavity, and that would certainly have been of value.”

Michael Waters from Texas A&M University and Halligan had held an interest in the site, believing it was worth taking another look. So between 2012 and 2014, divers, including Dunbar, excavated the area again.

Working in near-zero-visibility waters, the researchers were able to retrieve stone tools and the bones of extinct animals. Among their finds from the murky river was a biface — a knife with sharp edges on both sides. This knife is thought to have been used for cutting and butchering animals.

Scuba divers and boats.
Researchers discuss the finding of a mastodon bone. (Image: via Florida State University)

By using the latest radiocarbon dating techniques, the researchers could date all artifacts to around 14,550 years ago. Scientists believed that a group called Clovis was among the first inhabitants of the Americas, who are understood to have settled in the area about 13,200 years ago.

However, this new find puts that into question, with Walters saying: “The new discoveries at Page-Ladson show that people were living in the Gulf Coast area much earlier than believed. The stone tools and faunal remains at the site show that 14,550 years ago, people knew how to find game, freshwater, and material for making tools.”

“These people were well-adapted to this environment. The site is a slam-dunk pre-Clovis site with unequivocal artifacts, clear stratigraphy, and thorough dating. It’s pretty exciting. We thought we knew the answers to how and when we got here, but now the story is changing.”

Waters said the Page-Ladson site had changed dramatically since it was first occupied 14,550 years ago. According to the University of Michigan, millennia of deposition associated with rising water tables tied to sea-level rise left the area buried under 15 feet of sediment and submerged.

“Page-Ladson significantly adds to our growing knowledge that people were exploring and settling the Americas between 14,000 and 15,000 years ago. In addition, archaeological evidence from other sites dating to this time period shows us that people were also adapted to living in Texas, Washington, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and South America. Clearly, people were all over the Americas earlier than we thought.”

Evidence from the Page-Ladson site indicates that people had coexisted with, and also hunted, large mammals such as the mammoth and mastodon before they became extinct, with Fisher saying: “In addition, our work provides strong evidence that early human hunters did not hunt mastodons to extinction as quickly as supporters of the so-called ‘Blitzkrieg’ hypothesis have argued.”

“Instead, the evidence from this site shows that humans and megafauna coexisted for at least 2,000 years.”

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