The view from the bridge

By Dr. S. David Webb

As the millennium turns we tend to look in judgment on what has been accomplished. This applies as much to our Aucilla River Prehistory Project (ARPP) as to any other long-term enterprise. So how will the ARPP score two (or three) years hence? It is not too soon, even now, to consider our long-term trajectory. What will be our legacy to future Floridians? What will be the substance of our ultimate contribution to science?

In reality such questions have surrounded and suffused our project’s daily decisions for more than a dozen years. Only one concern ranks higher than our scientific contribution: and that is safety. Throughout the ARPP’s existence we have stated as our purpose the avid pursuit of three goals: they are, in order of their priority, Safety, Science, and Smelling the Roses. So far it seems that we have adhered rather well to this formula of “The three S’s”. But let us return to this millennial matter of the ARPP’s scientific achievements.

In a recent essay Ed Wilson, Pellegrino Professor of Biology at Harvard University, defined science as the “organized systematic enterprise that gathers knowledge about the world and condenses that knowledge into testable laws and principles.” He goes on to describe some of the features of science that distinguish it from pseudoscience such as repeatability of results and scrutiny of evidence by testing. He notes that “the best science stimulates further discovery, often in unpredictable new directions.” And finally he cites the importance of consilience. Consilience of evidence takes place when “explanations of different phenomena... prove consistent with one another.”

The scientific thrust of the ARPP is to learn firsthand what happened in prehistoric times in the area through which the Aucilla River now flows. Meticulously we collect specimens and samples and submit them to a variety of experts and analyses in order to gather knowledge and condense it into meaningful patterns which approximate the true history of events involving the first Floridians and their natural environments.

Some of the ARPP’s most exciting discoveries have come during our underwater excavations, notably the seven-foot, glowing-orange tusk found on October 24, 1993. Much smaller, but equally important, was recovery of a large sample of seeds representing the oldest gourds, Cucurbita pepo. These seeds have now been used as a basis of comparison for the first domesticated organisms in the New World: gourds from a cave in Oaxaca, Mexico. Many other discoveries came later, in the laboratory, for example when a series of carbon-dates showed that we have “stair-step stratigraphy”, representing a true chronological series of events. Likewise the orange tusk took on added significance when lab experiments showed that it had been repeatedly cut by a lithic tool in order to remove it from the mastodon skull.

Sometimes the best science involves unexpected cross-connections between diverse disciplines. Someone once remarked that the ARPP research team includes “all of the -ologies”. And I suspect that our most important scientific achievements, building on our solid field collections, will come from consilient discoveries, that is by intertwining the results from multiple disciplines. My favorite ARPP example of a consilient discovery, thus far, is the recognition that some of our peat deposits are in fact mastodon stomach contents, thus revealing the mastodon’s diet and habitats, and that they contain steroids and epithelial cells. So far this study cross-links field collecting, plant analyses, and animal physiology, but this resource offers still other scientific ramifications. We are currently studying with colleagues many more samples ranging from more than 12,000 years ago to about 11,000 when mastodons became extinct. Possibly some patterns in these digesta will elucidate the cause of mastodon extinction, such as human hunting or rapid climatic shift. Furthermore, the presence of 30,000 year old mastodon digesta at the Latvis/Simpson site offers yet another point of comparison still to be studied. New research on carbon and strontium isotopes present in mastodon (and other extinct animal) teeth illuminates diet and migration patterns that bear on human hunting strategies. The ARPP research engine has not finished generating new kinds of evidence. I predict that multidisciplinary scientists studying Aucilla River results will give us all still more incredible thrills from consilient studies well into the next millennium.

If indeed the ARPP is attaining a degree of scientific success, then we share our pride in these attainments with our many friends, students, volunteers and supporters. This is where our third goal, “smelling the roses” comes in. Repeatedly we hear from participants in the ARPP how their individual lives and perspectives have been enriched by the shared work and adventure. I certainly concur. When we are working at the river, typically ten weeks each year, the technical details of the scientific quest and the mundane matters of logistical support melt into the mystery and beauty of the Aucilla River itself. Some days are exhausting and discouraging, yet the sense of pride in our accomplishments wins out. I cannot say enough in praise of our project’s friends and personnel. At the end of our October season (or was it early November by then?) we were deeply touched by a cash gift presented by Dr. David G. Anderson. He was donating to our project (as well as to the Dust Cave Project in Alabama and the Big Pine Tree Project in South Carolina) the royalties from his recent book “The Archaeology of the Mid-Holocene Southeast”. Somehow this captures for us the sense that our heads and our hearts are working well. We welcome all students of the lessons to be learned from the past to join us as we march forward to fulfill our goals for the rest of the millennium.