Little Salt Spring (USA) - Florida’s earliest inhabitants


Ancient secrets

A UM marine archaeologist is finding intriguing clues to the first Floridians in a 200-foot-deep sinkhole near Sarasota.

Sue Cocking

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An underwater mortuary, sharpened wooden stakes, an impaled tortoise shell and a beautiful, carved green stone pendant. These are some of the tantalizing clues to the daily lives of Florida’s earliest inhabitants found in Little Salt Spring, a 200-foot-deep sinkhole about 10 miles inland near Sarasota.

“The deposits in here are like a fruit cake — totally packed with goodies,” says John Gifford, an associate professor and marine archaeologist at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, who has been investigating the spring since 1983.

“We now have the largest collection of the oldest wooden artifacts anywhere in the world. It will increase our understanding of the way people lived 10,000 years ago.”

Little Salt, Gifford says, is a window into the world of Paleo Indians – nomadic hunter-gatherers who traveled a dry, dusty Florida peninsula that was twice its modern size. There were no Everglades or Lake Okeechobee, and fresh water was scarce, which made the spring an oasis.

“This would have been a magnet to animals,” he says. “The people were attracted to the animals, and that’s why we find all this stuff here.”

The remains and artifacts are exceptionally well preserved because there is no dissolved oxygen in the water. They are undisturbed because the University of Miami owns the 112 acres around the site, and admission is restricted to research personnel.

Gifford and research associate/caretaker Steve Koski, who lives in a trailer beside the spring, are trying to determine the uses of several wooden stakes that were driven into sediment beneath the surface some 10,000 years ago. They may or may not have some connection with several large tortoise shells, found on a 90-foot-deep ledge, which are the same genus (but a different species) as the giant land tortoises that inhabit the Galapagos Islands. The shells are about 12,000 years old.

The researchers, assisted by scientific divers from UM and the Florida Aquarium, have found human remains on the 90-foot ledge, but haven’t disturbed them.

Other intriguing findings include a 10,000-year-old, carved atlatl, or spear-thrower, and the green stone pendant, which is 7,000 years old, rare, and made of a rock not found anywhere in Florida. Gifford says analysis shows it most likely originated in North Carolina, and made its way here through trade networks to be worn around the neck of a person of importance, perhaps the local chief.

Some of the artifacts are on display at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee, and others are undergoing examination at a conservation lab at Texas A & M University.

The most recent items found are 5,000 to 6,000 years old. Gifford believes that’s because inhabitants were no longer dependent on the spring after sea levels rose, the peninsula shrank, and fresh water was generally available.

Over the years, the scientists have found numerous items that resemble tools, but they don’t know their purposes, and there are no experts they can consult because nothing comparable has been found elsewhere.

“We have all the examples in the world,” Gifford said. “We can’t go to a book and look and say, ‘This one looks like ours’. We are going to have to write the book.”

He and Koski plan to prepare a paper on their findings and present it at a scientific conference in a few months.

Meanwhile, excavation continues in Little Salt Spring, most of it on a shallow ledge about 30 feet deep. Divers climb down a wooden platform in the center of the spring and use a 2 ½-horsepower swimming pool pump with a four-inch hose to clear away sediment from the dig site. Aluminum hurricane shutters purchased from a nearby Home Depot serve as cofferdams to keep out sediment. Each item is mapped, photographed and entered into a computer database.

The pace of the work is glacial, at best. Since 1992, Gifford and his crew have excavated an area only 18 feet long and six feet wide — about 6 percent of the spring.

They dive under the watchful eyes of numerous turtles and Mama Gator, a five-footer with several babies who, fortunately, keeps her distance.

Shore headquarters consists of four dilapidated trailers, circa 1975, that serve as dormitories, dive storage locker and research laboratory. There’s a garden hose for a shower and two portable toilets.

Gifford and Koski are constantly on the lookout for funding. They are hopeful a University of Miami capital building campaign will raise $1 million for new facilities, but that’s uncertain. Private donations are welcome.

All are excited about the possibility of new finds when excavation resumes on the 90-foot ledge this summer. UM diving safety officer Rick Gomez is training the team to use TriMix, a breathing-gas mixture that can extend dive times safely in deep water.

As for exploring the dark bottom of the spring, Gifford says there’s no hurry to conduct an expensive dig through 20 feet of mud.

“We have plenty to do right here.”