Excavation suggests human presence at Old Vero Man site in Florida

Picture of some of the fossilized bones found in 1914 at Main Relief Canal in Vero. Image from the Florida Photographic Collection of the State Library & Archives of Florida.

Picture of some of the fossilized bones found in 1914 at Main Relief Canal in Vero. Image from the Florida Photographic Collection of the State Library & Archives of Florida.

Were he alive today, E.H. Sellards, Florida state geologist in the early 1900s, would likely have revelled in the validation of his controversial theory that humans co-existed with large prehistoric animals some 14,000 years ago in Vero Beach, Florida.

In what the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute (MAI) Director James Adovasio describes as the most extensive Paleoindian excavation currently under way in all of North America, that being the Old Vero Man site where Sellards drew his now century-old conclusions, evidence uncovered recently by MAI positively demonstrates the contemporaneous presence of humans and late Pleistocene animals.

The MAI began its Vero excavation last year at the invitation of the Old Vero Ice Age Sites Committee (OVIASC), a dedicated group determined to define Vero’s rightful place in the archaeological record. OVIASC has been instrumental in raising the funds necessary for the first season of excavation that ran from January to May 2014, and will commence again in January 2015.

Evidence of humans

Although actual human remains were not retrieved in the dig’s first round, certain artefacts identified during the excavation, among them burned fragments of  bone, some with cut marks; could only be the work of human beings, Adovasio said.

It’s taken more than 100 years, but we now know that Sellards was right,” he added, crediting rigorous excavation protocols and new technology that enabled investigators to proceed with a precise understanding of the site’s geology – an advantage Sellards did not have.

Picture of the South side of the Main Relief Canal in Vero. The human bones were found here. Image from the Florida Photographic Collection of the State Library & Archives of Florida.Further,  radiocarbon dating of the soil where much of the cultural materials have been found – in all, 170 species of plants and animals from MAI and earlier investigations – goes back 13-14,000 years, making Vero the oldest terrestrial archaeological site in all of Florida and one of the oldest in the entire Southeast Unites States.

19,000 year-old buried soil layer

Adovasio said MAI archaeologists and students also uncovered a buried soil layer dating back some 19,000 years, and that is where they intend to concentrate their second excavation in January.

If that  stratum or layer  produces cultural materials, it will be one of the oldest locations in all of North or South America,” Adovasio added.

Far reaching debate

While the current findings are significant to Floridians, Adovasio said the Vero site also plays a role in the more far-reaching debate surrounding the founding populations of the Americas. Historically, the first agreed-upon culture in the Americas was called Clovis, after a site discovered in New Mexico in the 1920s. Sites identified as Clovis dated around 11,200 – 11,500 radiocarbon years ago. But, beginning in the 1970s, sites pre-dating Clovis began to be discovered, such as Pennsylvania’s Meadowcroft Rockshelter, where Adovasio was principal excavator; Monte Verde in Chile and Gault in Central Texas.

Those discoveries – and now Vero – go a long way toward proving Clovis believers wrong and turning most archaeologists on Adovasio’s side of the debate.

Moving forward, Adovasio said that subsequent investigations are expected to reveal the interrelationship of human, animal and plant populations at Vero. He said their hope is “to distinguish lifestyles of the folks who might have lived at Vero in terms of how much they match or don’t match other behavioural models from other sites.”

The faunal and floral materials recovered, among them a bone tentatively identified as that of a dire wolf, now extinct, are being studied in the archaeology labs at Mercyhurst University, creating a rare and historic opportunity for students.

MAI is now working with Florida Atlantic University scientists, who intend to analyse ancient DNA found at the dig site to provide yet another glimpse of the Florida landscape at the end of the last Ice Age.