In the heart of the Treasure Coast, a team of archeologists is poring over a 14,000-year-old site that could completely rewrite the prehistory of the state and, to some extent, the prehistory of humankind in the New World.
But it took a last-minute intervention by Florida Atlantic University to assure The Old Vero Man site would be around to reveal its mysteries.
The dig’s story began a century ago, with the Indian River Farms Company dredging a canal in a backwater called Vero in 1913 — the actual town of Vero Beach wouldn’t exist for another six years. The dredging turned up old bones and other artifacts, which in turn drew the attention of state geologist Elias Sellards. He excavated over the next couple years, turning up more evidence of ancient human habitation.
Given the depth of the artifacts and the layers of rock around them, Sellards put human habitation in the area at 14,000 years ago, and was promptly laughed out of the archaeology business.
Back then, the prevailing thought was that people hadn’t been in America before the last Ice Age, had not coexisted in the New World with mammoths, mastodons and other now-extinct Ice Age animals. A few decades later, in the 1930s, arrowheads and other artifacts from what experts called the Clovis culture meant that people had been in America some 11,000 years ago — still not ancient enough for Sellards’ theory to hold water.
And so the Old Vero Man site sat largely untouched as Vero Beach grew up around it. It now sits on the south side of the Vero Beach Regional Airport.
In 2009, a proposed storm-water system would have dumped 200 tons of concrete on the site. That’s when the Old Vero Ice Age Sites Committee was formed to make sure construction wouldn’t destroy a valuable window into antiquity. They found enough to halt construction, but committee chair Randy Old needed to bring in an expert to do the serious digging.
“Because the site had this stigma of was it real or not, we had to get someone in here to do excavation that was beyond reproach,” Old said. “So I started asking around, ‘If you were going to choose an archaeologist for this site, who would you choose?’ And everyone in the field said Jim Adovasio. I asked for second or third choices, and most of the time, the answer was. ‘Don’t bother.'”
With his squinty gaze, close-cropped gray beard and predilection for safari wear, Jim Adovasio looks like some Hemingway-esque idea of what a rugged field archaeologist should be. And yet, Adovasio has done far more than most in his field to reexamine the role of women in prehistory. He is one of the foremost experts on ancient basketry and textiles in the world, and has written books positing that women are responsible for rope, fishing nets, a great deal of language development — civilization, in other words.
Adovasio also played a large role in overturning the Clovis-came-first idea — the Old Vero Man site is not his first that stretches back more than 11,000 years. Adovasio also worked an area in Pennsylvania that showed humans were there before the Clovis culture could possibly have arrived, and a few more have been found in both North and South America.
Since the late 1970s, Adovasio and others have been saying human presence in the New World goes back farther than 11,000 years, but it’s only in the 21st century that most people in the field have climbed on the bandwagon.
But for Adovasio, the Old Vero Man site is special. It’s the first of its kind in the Southeast United States and reflects a Florida alien to us. With much more water locked up in Ice Age glaciers, sea levels were far lower back then, and so Florida was much bigger.
“What it does is illuminate better than any other site around what the first Floridians might have been doing when they spread across what was then a much larger landscape,” Adovasio said.
The archaeologist, at the time employed by Pennsylvania’s Mercyhurst University, excavated in 2014 and 2015. Those excavations established the geology of the site — what soil had been added by the anal dredging and other construction, and what had been there longer.
“We understand the geology of the locality very well now,” Adovasio said. “We have a series of dates that have established the relative antiquity of the site to our satisfaction.”
In his team’s last dig, it partially uncovered what Adovasio believes to be a 14,000-year-old campsite. There was a fire, and there are animal bones in the fire. Given how wet the area was, a natural fire is unlikely. Adovasio was prepared to return for the 2016 dig season, which takes place January to May each year, and open up more of the ancient camp. Then, a month ago, Mercyhurst University decided to stop funding the project.
“We had two wonderful years with Mercyhurst,” Old said. “But then they decided we’re not going to continue doing this in Vero. You’re on your own.”Enter Florida Atlantic University.
This month, its Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce announced it would pick up where Mercyhurst left off. Adovasio has left his old post at Mercyhurst and, along with fellow archaeologist Andy Hemmings, will be employed by FAU. It’s an arrangement that has pleased everyone involved.
“They’ve got a good archaeology/anthropology department, and they’re a much bigger university, so there’s a much larger base of students to pull from to help us,” Old said. “Besides, it’s nice to have a Florida institute studying Florida history.”
FAU also has one of the country’s few ancient-DNA labs, which gives it high marks with Adovasio. And on the other side, the university puts its name on what could be an incredibly significant site, with the big-name experts that come with it.
“We’re going to have a strong group of people employed at FAU as soon as we complete the grant process,” said Harbor Branch interim executive director Megan Davis. “Also, we can involve graduate and undergraduate students, and in addition to the dig being very significant in terms of the types of artifacts, there’s also a lot to learn from it in regards to the environment. Florida has been covered in water off and on over thousands of years, and this site shows us some of the changes that have taken place.”
“I think most archaeologists at least tacitly subscribe to the idea that by understanding where we’ve been, we can understand where we are and where we’re going,” Adovasio said.
Once the site opens for excavations in January, Adovasio encourages the public to come visit, if only so he can disabuse them of the popular perception of archaeologists, instilled by the adventures of a certain whip-cracking, pistol-packing cinematic icon.
“It’s a phenomenal thing to see archaeology being done on this scale. It’s not that Indiana Jones stuff,” Adovasio said. “You’re taking a layer of soil off that might be as thin as a layer of icing on a cupcake, using something as thin as a razor blade, 12 hours a day, six days a week. When you see it, you realize how dreadfully mind bending this kind of thing can be. It attracts a bizarre kind of personality to say the least.”
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