Aboriginal Settlement in the Apalachee Region of Florida

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—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 plentiful.

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 clay soils.

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 symposium.  Any errors in form, facts or interpretation that may have been introduced here, however, are the sole responsibility of the author.


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