Who Built the Sapelo Shell Rings?
It is quite possible that the ancestors of Georgia’s Timucua Indian tribe constructed the Sapelo Shell Rings. The Timucua controlled large parts of south Georgia and north Florida at the time of European contact. Linguistic evidence suggests they migrated into the area from somewhere in South America, possibly Venezuela, by island hopping until reaching the coastal areas of Florida and Georgia.
When the first French explorers settled just south of Sapelo Island in present day Jacksonville, Florida at Fort Caroline during the 1500s, they described how the Timucua Indians lived in circular fortified communities. An artist on the expedition, Jacques Le Moyne, drew pictures of such circular villages surrounded by stockades. Another possibility is that the ancestors of the Yuchi Indian tribe constructed these mounds. One version of the Yuchi migration legend has them arriving from the Bahama islands after a catastrophe flooded the islands. During the historic period the Yuchi Indians were also known for living in round villages, so much so that early English settlers called them the “round town” people. The Yuchi surrounded their round villages with a stockade of upright timbers sharpened to a point at the top to form a defensive barrier. Of course, these are just speculations and it may not be knowable for certain who built the Sapelo Shell Rings.
Shell Rings…or Walls?
|Above: Watch as archaeologist Victor Thompson climbs the larger of the three shell rings on Sapelo Island.|
Perhaps as Sapelo’s shell rings grew larger and taller they also served a defensive purpose. The large shell ring at Sapelo would have been nearly impossible to successfully attack from the river. It rises an impressive 20 feet above the river bank and its walls are very steep, giving the residents the high ground and forcing any would-be attackers to slow as they attempted to scale the oyster shell walls. Bow-and-arrows were not invented until 2500 years later thus attackers would have used spears, atlatls, clubs and other such weapons that required scaling the oyster shell walls for a successful attack. The oyster shells themselves would provide another form of defense since they are quite sharp and would slice the feet of any barefoot attackers. Today, the oyster shells are covered by 4,000 years of dirt and debris thus making the walls less dangerous to climb. But when first constructed the rings were composed of exposed oyster shells.
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In fact, this could have been the reason the villagers chose to dump these shells in a circle behind their homes in the first place. As mentioned earlier, the villagers originally dug several pits and dumped the shells there where they accumulated into large mounds. Perhaps the more security-conscious members of the community realized if they dumped the shells evenly around their village instead of in a few big piles they would slowly accumulate into a protective wall around the village. Many small scale communities use this type of strategy to construct things gradually when they lack the manpower and supplies to construct it all-at-once. In fact, people in the area today still have oyster roasts and intentionally dump the shells in their driveways in order to build it up over time. Their driveways are not unintended trash heaps but purposeful constructions which grow over time. Thus the gradual accumulation theory does not preclude the possibility that the rings or walls were also intentionally planned as part of a long-term defensive strategy.
Oldest Pottery in North America
|Above: Watch as archaeologist Victor Thompson discusses Sapelo’s pottery tradition. Excerpt from Lost Worlds: Georgia DVD.|
Particularly noteworthy about the Sapelo Shell Ring complex is the fact that some of the oldest pottery in North America was found here. The natives of Sapelo appear to be some of the first people in North America to settle down into permanent villages. This was made possible by the extensive natural resources located around the site. In fact, even today this area is the most productive estuary on the east coast of North America. Thus the people who first settled Sapelo no longer needed to migrate to find food on a seasonal basis and instead could stay in one place and still have all their needs met. It is believed that this new sedentary lifestyle facilitated the creation of the new technology of pottery. A similar pattern has been found at shell ring sites around the world. Shell rings also exist in Japan, Peru and Colombia as well as other coastal areas of the Southeastern United States. In Japan, Colombia and the Southeastern U.S. these shell ring sites are all associated with the earliest pottery to be found in their respective areas.
Interestingly, the oldest pottery in the Americas was found in the Brazilian Amazon near the city of Santarem. Remarkably, this pottery dates back 7500 years. Tribes in this area were also noted for living in circular villages.
As stated earlier, it is possible that ancestors of either the Timucua Indians or Yuchi Indians migrated into the area from either South America or the Bahamas respectively. Yet what could cause such a migration of people from their homeland into the unknown lands of coastal North America? Interestingly, Bronze Age civilizations in the Old World seem to show a pattern of collapse around 2200 BC, just 30 years before the earliest occupation of the Sapelo Shell Rings site. In the Middle East, Akkadian Sumer collapsed at this time and the Dead Sea water levels reached their lowest point. In China, the Hongsan culture collapsed. Sediments from Greenland and Iceland show a cold peak around 2200 BC. The population of Finland decreased by a third between 2400 and 2000 BC. In Turkey’s Anatolia region, including the site of ancient Troy, over 350 sites show evidence of being burnt and deserted. Entire regions reverted to a nomadic way of live after thousands of years of settled agricultural life. In fact, most sites throughout the Old World which collapsed around 2200 BC showed unambiguous signs of natural calamities and/or rapid abandonment. (Continues…)