23 October 1999
News from the Miami stone circle
In July of 1998, Florida archeologists began a routine excavation after being notified that a developer wanted to build a $126 million apartment complex on a potentially important archeological site. What they found at the mouth of the Miami River was a pattern of a circle cut into the limestone bedrock - evidence that a prehistoric culture lived at the mouth of the Miami River about two thousand years ago. The Miami-Dade county seized the land and blocked the development of the construction site after the discovery of the stone circle.
Within the 38-foot diameter stone circle, were post holes, two hand axes and several hand axe fragments. There's no consensus on the inhabitors, nor the use of the site. Thought to belong to the ancestors of the Tequesta Indians, indigenous to South Florida, some say the structure was for sacred ceremonies, while others believe it was the site of a native chief's house. But now, an analysis of the stone tools is refining the interpretations.
Geologists at the University of Miami studied fragments from the hand axes to determine their origin. Archeologists knew right they weren't from the Miami site originally, because the tools were made of basalt, a hard, volcanic rock. The only stone native to the area is limestone. A thorough examination of the hand axes revealed that the rocks contained low levels of titanium, sodium and potassium. With this information in hand, the scientists were able to pinpoint the source of the tools - to central Georgia, near Macon, 850 kilometres away.
"Rocks can't fly. The axes had to be traded here from outside the state," says Christopher Eck, director of the Miami-Dade Division of Historic Preservation. And just like the downtown Miami site is now used as an international port, the same location most likely served as a port of trade, hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived. The trading, however, didn't just occur at the 'port', but up the Florida coast and into the northern states, probably through intermediary tribes. Copper is not native to Florida, and is typically found in the Great Lakes region.
"They might have traded to a tribe further up into Florida and from there, that tribe traded on to another and made its way to Georgia. And then from there, to say, some place like the Great Lakes for the copper," explains Eck. "So, what you see is that there is this linkage between the people here in Florida and in Georgia and elsewhere." This knowledge is significant, says Eck, because it shows that the prehistoric peoples were not living in isolation, but reaped the benefits of civilized interactions between tribes.
"I think a lot of peoples' perceptions of what prehistoric people were like, is that they were these very uncivilized, perhaps superstitious, very unsophisticated people. What this shows is that there was a level of trade sophistication, and concern with items that were not locally available - that they could get by interacting with people from beyond."
Sources: Discovery Channel, Nando Media (24 september 99)