Florida Ice Age Site with Early Human Remains to be Excavated

A woolly mammoth reconstruction in the Royal BC Museum, CanadaFlying Puffin, Wikimedia.org

A woolly mammoth reconstruction in the Royal BC Museum, CanadaFlying Puffin, Wikimedia.org

Excavation of one of the most important Ice Age sites in North America – the Old Vero Man site in Vero Beach, Fla. – is expected to begin in January 2014, thanks to a new collaboration between the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute (MAI) at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa., and the Old Vero Ice Age Sites Committee (OVIASC).

On Monday, Dec. 2, Mercyhurst President Thomas J. Gamble, Ph.D., MAI Director James Adovasio, Ph.D., and retired Mercyhurst Trustee William Sennett will be in Vero Beach to sign an agreement with OVIASC, a citizens group directed by Randy Old, and put the official stamp of approval on the pending excavation. Members of city and county government and the Indian River Farms Water Control District also will be on hand to witness the culmination of years of renewed local interest in the site, first discovered 100 years ago.

vero-beach-bonesScientists believe the Old Vero Man site, famous for the discovery of Vero Man in 1915, contains significant fossils and artifacts, including human remains at least 13,000 years old, along with the remains of extinct animals, according to Adovasio. Adovasio and MAI research archaeologist C. Andrew Hemmings, Ph.D., will direct the project. They will be assisted by Mercyhurst alumni Anne Marjenin, director of the Archaeology Processing Lab at Mercyhurst, who will serve as chief field assistant; and Ben Wells, who is pursuing graduate studies at the University of West Florida. A number of Mercyhurst archaeology students will participate in the historic dig as well.

vero-beach-site

About a century ago, workers digging the main drainage canal in Vero Beach uncovered evidence of mastodons, saber tooth cats, ground sloths, mammoths and other fossils, as well as human remains. The discovery of parts of a skull and 44 bones of a human skeleton became known as “Vero Man.”

As is often the case in the scientific debate over early Americans, the Old Vero Man site is steeped in controversy, largely centered on whether the human remains in Vero were of a more recent age than the extinct animal bones due to mixing of geological layers. The Vero site remains in the literature on early American inhabitants, but its status is unresolved.

“From the beginning, Vero was one of the more infamous archaeological sites in North America because it was seen as such a threat to the then perceived wisdom that no humans had lived here during the last Ice Age,” Adovasio said. “Like Meadowcroft and Monte Verde, it was the subject of vitriolic abuse by the alleged experts at the time. Largely because of that abuse and the less than rigorous field methods, Vero went off the radar. But, because of the phenomenal preservation of Ice Age plant and animal materials at that site, this new excavation will serve to illuminate a time frame in the American Southeast that no other site can, with or without human associations. Whatever information is in there, we are going to get it.”

After analysis at Mercyhurst, it is anticipated that artifacts will return to Vero Beach for display, according to OVIASC’s Randy Old. OVIASC hopes to create a State of Florida-approved repository in Indian River County for that purpose.

A fossilized bone with a mastodon or mammoth carved into it was discovered by amateur fossil hunter and local resident James Kennedy. The artifact is "one of the oldest pieces of prehistoric art in the Western Hemisphere." Adapted from Chip Clark/Journal of Archaeological Science

A fossilized bone with a mastodon or mammoth carved into it was discovered by amateur fossil hunter and local resident James Kennedy. The artifact is “one of the oldest pieces of prehistoric art in the Western Hemisphere.” Adapted from Chip Clark/Journal of Archaeological Science

Adovasio and Hemmings, meanwhile, believe the pending excavation will bring new answers to questions about the controversial site. Adovasio is known for his meticulous excavation of the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, widely recognized as the earliest well-dated archaeological site in North America, with evidence of human habitation dating to ca. 16,000 years ago. Hemmings, an expert on the oldest Paleoindian sites in the U.S., received his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Florida and has worked on submerged and other ancient sites across Florida. The pair brings not only a wealth of expertise, but some of the latest methods used in modern scientific excavations for which the MAI is renowned.

“The new excavation in Vero will bring current analytical techniques to the soil layers, bone fragments, seeds, pollen and other materials discovered, and more complete and perhaps new answers to the questions of who were the people found there and how they lived and died,” Old said.

Courtesy Mercyhurst University

Kennewick Man Skeletal Find May Revolutionalize Continent’s History

A forensic anthropologist at Middle Tennessee State University is one
of a select number of scientists to participate in the examination of
a skeleton that could force historians to rewrite the story of the
entire North American continent.

Dr. Hugh Berryman, research professor, was one of only 11 experts
from across the United States to scrutinize the bones of Kennewick
Man, a 9,300-year-old skeleton found 10 years ago along the Columbia
River at Kennewick, Wash.

“It’s one of the oldest skeletons, one of the earliest individuals
that populated this continent,” Berryman says. “And we have a chance
to look at those remains and learn from them what they tell us about
the past and who these people were.”

The 380 bones are being preserved at the University of Washington’s
Burke Museum under an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers, which controls the land on which Kennewick was discovered.
Berryman says he was between two and three feet deep in the ground.
The burial miraculously saved the bones from the elements, the
animals, machinery and man for centuries, and ancient deposits of
calcium carbonate on the bones allowed the researchers to determine
the positioning of the bones in the ground.

“We have evidence that the bones were still in anatomic order,”
Berryman says. “He was still articulated, and he appears to have been
a burial. So once something is buried, that moves it at a depth that
perhaps the coyotes, the wolves, scavengers could not get to it.”

The July 2005 research was very nearly derailed when the Corps
initially decided to turn Kennewick over to a coalition of Native
American tribes. Eight scientists filed a federal lawsuit to gain
permission to study the skeleton. A federal judge, whose ruling later
was upheld by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, decided in
favor of the scientists after determining that the tribes could not
prove a direct cultural affiliation with Kennewick.

Berryman says the information that can be gleaned from Kennewick came
close to being lost forever.

“Since 1990, we’ve lost most of the skeletal remains from groups,”
Berryman says. “It’s a shame that a lot of these groups are already
gone. We have no way of knowing what kind of movements there were in
prehistoric times, where these people came from, who they were
related to, what other tribal groups they might be related to.”

What the experts were able to ascertain from their brief encounter
with Kennewick is that he did not look like a Native American. In
fact, Berryman says Kennewick’s facial features are most similar to
those of a Japanese group called the Ainu, who have a different
physical makeup and cultural background from the ethnic Japanese.

Some Ainu’s facial features appear European. Their eyes may lack the
Asian almond-shaped appearance, and their hair may be light and curly
in color. However, this does not mean that Kennewick Man necessarily
was European in origin. His features more closely resemble those of
the natives of the Pacific Rim than those of Native Americans.

Berryman, a fracture expert who was trained in the fine art of
picking apart dead people at the University of Tennessee’s “Body
Farm,” also documented three types of bone breaks in Kennewick—
fractures that were suffered in his lifetime and then healed,
fractures that happened after his burial, and fractures that occurred
when the skeleton was eroded from the riverbank.

Part of a spear had remained lodged in Kennewick’s right hip bone at
a 77-degree angle, but, remarkably, the spear did not cause his
death. The cause of his demise remains a mystery. What is known is
that this athletic, rugged hunter suffered many physical traumas
before finally expiring in his mid-to-late 30s.

“The muscle markings are pretty pronounced,” Berryman says.“He was
probably a well-built individual. The bones of the right arm were
larger than the left.”

The bigger right arm can be explained by the 18-to-24-inch-long
atlatl, or spear thrower, that gave him and his contemporaries the
ability to propel a spear up to the length of a football field in
order to kill their food. Kennewick died long before the invention of
the bow and arrow.

Berryman says Kennewick has only begun to reveal the story of his
life and times, and it would be tremendous to have other scientists
examine his bones.

“It was a lot slower process than we thought,” Berryman says. “The
first day, all day, we looked at one bone, one femur. And then we
realized at the end of the day that we were going to be lucky to be
able to cover this the way that it should be in a week-and-a-half.”

Age, ancestry, sex, height, pathologies, types of trauma, even
whether a woman has given birth—all can be determined just from
examining a skeleton, says Berryman, who often is called upon to give
expert testimony on bones in criminal trials.

“Bone is great at recording its own history,” he says.“Throughout
your life, there are different things that you do, and they may leave
little signs in the bone. If you can read those signs, it’s almost
like interviewing a person.”’

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Cloud of scholarly dust rises over ancient footprints claim

Are the footprints of surprisingly ancient Americans preserved in
40,000-year-old volcanic ash in southern Mexico? In December, an
article in the journal Science cast a cloud of doubt over that claim.

The authors, Michael Waters and Paul Renne, argue that the ash dated
to 1.3 million years ago, much too old for humans on this continent,
and that the so-called footprints were nothing more than marks made
by the tools of modern workers quarrying the stone with crowbars.

Now, Silvia Gonzalez, an archaeologist from Liverpool John Moores
University, and several members of her research team have published
their data and interpretations in the journal Quaternary Science
Reviews. Based on their results, the case is far from closed.

According to the researchers, the early dates for the ash are wrong.
They note that the overlying deposits range in age from 9,000 to
40,000 years, with no evidence of significant breaks in the sequence.

Moreover, an article in the March issue of the Mammoth Trumpet states
that Gonzalez and her team have dated lake sediments below the ash
layer to about 100,000 years ago, which would mean the ash had to be
considerably younger than the date reported in Science.

Gonzalez and her co-authors also claim the “footprints” are distinct
from recent tool markings, which are sharply defined and unweathered.

Also, many of the footprints appear to preserve details of foot
anatomy that would not be duplicated by quarry tool divots. Finally,
and most importantly, the team has identified more “potential
footprints” in nearby locations “where no quarrying operations have
occurred.”

Gonzalez told the Mammoth Trumpet that the only way to fully answer
the critics would be “to excavate an area where there has been no
quarry activity and uncover more footprints. We will do this as soon
as we can.”

The most famous ancient footprints are the 3.6 million-year-old
tracks of early human ancestors excavated by Mary Leakey at Laetoli
in Tanzania, Africa.

In the current issue of the Journal of Human Evolution, Australian
scientists announced the discovery of 23,000-year-old trackways of
human footprints in western New South Wales.

Bradley T. Lepper is curator of archaeology at the Ohio Historical
Society.

blepper@ohiohistory.org

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