ARPP strategic research design

By Dr. Jerald T. Milanich

The ARPP, a multi-disciplinary research program launched a decade ago by the Florida Museum of Natural History, is focused on recovering and interpreting information on prehistoric human cultures and their environments. Surveys and excavations have revealed numerous late Pleistocene and early Holocene sedimentary bodies that yield archaeological and paleontological sites. Most of these are deeply inundated by the Aucilla River which has risen just during the past 5,000 years. The Aucilla sites may be divided into the following three time intervals:

In recent years, funded by grants from the National Geographic Society, the Florida Department of State and the Florida Legislature, ARPP has entered a more detailed phase of recovering the rich prehistoric legacy which lies below the waters of the Aucilla River. This paper outlines a general research design for these investigations. The design conforms to the Florida Preservation Plan for Archaeology, a document prepared by Florida archaeologists in conjunction with the Florida Bureau of Historic Research (Payne and Milanich, 1989). This paper is an adaptable statement that is to be updated and altered as field and laboratory research and analyses provide new information that will lead to additional challenges and opportunities.

This broad strategy will be supplemented by tactical plans prepared each field season for each site. The latter are prepared in conjunction with detailed, written dive plans that are continually reviewed to ensure safety of field personnel and techniques as well as equipment appropriate to ambient conditions.


Paleoindians, the first people to live in Florida, were descended from the human populations who entered North America from eastern Asia during the late Pleistocene about 12,500 years ago.

These first groups were composed of small, highly mobile populations who rapidly increased in number as they spread throughout the Americas, leaving behind stone, bone and ivory tools that are remarkably homogeneous, at least in North America. Because of the climatic changes which occurred at the onset of the Holocene, late Pleistocene sites are usually difficult to find or are not found in contexts that can easily be studied.

Because of this relative lack of contextual information scholarly debates continue to surround the chronology and nature of the first migrations out of Asia, as well as the timing and geography of the subsequent Paleoindian colonization of North America. In addition, the nature of Paleoindian sites, especially the lack of preservation of non-lithic items of material culture, makes it difficult to describe and interpret the lifeways of the Paleoindians over the three millennia they are believed to have lived in Florida.

The sites in the Aucilla River under investigation by ARPP contain information that already has contributed new understanding to these debates. Included within these new sources of data are multiple radiocarbon dates documenting the presence of Paleoindians in Florida at least 12,300 years ago. ARPP also has shown that the Aucilla sites contain artifacts of ivory, bone and wood, as well as plant remains, items seldom found at other Paleoindian sites. The potential for leaming about the environment in which Florida Paleoindians lived and the manner in which they utilized it is enormous.

The water sources that were available must have been important to the Paleoindians as well as to many of the animals they hunted. Catchment areas provided water for drinking; they also provided locations where Paleoindians could hunt game.

If the correlation between karstic topography and water sources is secure, then we would expect that evidence of Paleoindian camps and hunting and butchering activities -- artifacts and, perhaps, the bones of animals hunted and eaten by humans -- will be found at former water holes and other perched water sources, including shallow lakes and prairies, and at deep sinks in the karstic, Tertiary limestone regions of Florida where such features existed in the past.

This correlation certainly appears to hold true. As early as the 1940s, collectors found Paleoindian artifacts and the bones of extinct animals in the Ichetucknee River within the karstic region of northern Florida. Since that time sport divers as well as archaeologists and paleontologists have collected literally hundreds of Paleoindian stone artifacts from the bottom of Florida rivers from what are thought to be inundated catchment areas. Such locales include the Santa Fe-Ichetucknee River basin, the Aucilla River-Wacissa River basin, the Steinhatchee River, the Oklawaha River- Silver River system, the Withlacoochee River (in west central Florida), the Hillsborough River, the Chipola River, and, to a lesser extent, the St. Johns River. In these rivers the artifacts are in close association with the bones of animals, presumably animals hunted, butchered, and eaten by the Paleoindians.

More support for what has been called the Oasis Theory of Paleoindian settlement came in the early 1990's when James Dunbar and Ben Waller mapped the distribution of Paleoindian Clovis and Suwannee stone points found in Florida. They found that 92% of the known sample is from the region of Tertiary limestone topography from Tampa Bay northward (Dunbar 1991).

What once were late Pleistocene water holes today are the bottoms of the rivers such as the Aucilla. Consequently, Paleoindian camps and hunting and butchering locales are inundated in our modem rivers. And although divers and archaeologists have found and documented the presence of Paleoindian artifacts in the river bottoms, those artifacts , for the most part, are materials that have been eroded out of their original contexts. This raised the questions: Are there inundated in situ Paleoindian cultural deposits in the rivers? Can they be excavated ?

The answer to both questions is "Yes," based on investigations in the Aucilla River at the Page/Ladson site. The first 10 years of the ARPP were dedicated to demonstrating that in situ deposits exist and, in some instances, are stratified.

ARPP surveys also have shown that the density of inundated Paleoindian sites is very large, probably reflecting the reliance of Paleoindians on the late Pleistocene water holes that today occur within the river banks. In the Half-Mile Rise section of the Aucilla River and two other locales in the same river ARPP has recorded 26 Paleoindian sites, more inundated Paleoindian sites than were recognized in all of Florida previously.

Further topics dealt with in detail under Paleoindian section of this research design are the following: Climates and Sea-levels; Sites and Settlement Patterns (Testing the Oases Hypothesis); Sampling and Carbon-Dating; Subsistence on Large Animals, Small Animals and Plants; and the Tool Kit, including Lithics, Bone and Ivory, and Wood.