UNF archaeologists find ancient artifact
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The undisputed star of an archeological dig now underway in a buggy jungle on Big Talbot Island is a 4,000-year-old projectile point about 3 inches long, It’s made of chert, a sedimentary rock unlike anything found in the sandy soil of the island.
It came from present-day Gainesville or areas west of that and was likely brought to the coast through a trade network at some point.
Its style points to that early date, so what was it doing for thousands of years before it was found in the excavation of the village of Sarabay? After all, Sarabay was a home for Timucuan-speaking Mocama Indians that dates to far later — roughly to the 16th-century period of first contact with European colonists and soldiers.
“The story it must have to wind up in this site,” marveled Ian King, a University of North Florida student helping on the dig.
UNF archaeologist Keith Ashley speculates that the Mocama people of Big Talbot probably found the projecticle somewhere and happily put it to good use — as they were not able to find anything as remotely sharp in the sandy uplands or winding waterways on which they lived.
This semester Ashley, along with students, is back for a seventh time at Sarabay, which UNF began exploring in 1998. It is a thickly wooded, mostquito-ridden subtropical jungle on Big Talbot, the constantly shifting barrier island in far northeasternmost Duval County.
The French settlers who founded Fort Caroline in 1564 wrote about Sarabay, noting the village’s ripening cornfields. Ashley suspects they were more likely small village plots of corn, which the Mocama started cultivating in about 1450.
Within a century, first contact would mark the beginning of the end of a way of life that had persisted for hundreds if not thousands of years.
On the first day of May 1562, Frenchman Jean Ribault landed at the mouth of what he called the River May, believed to be the St. Johns River, and stayed briefly before trying to start a settlement in South Carolina, which ended disastrously.
He wrote that the natives at the River May treated them well and even showed them where to bring in their boat.
Ribault’s landing, though brief, was momentous, Ashley said.
“May 1, 1562, the daily rhythm of Mocama life just halted then,” he said. “The long-term impact of that was just going to be disastrous to the Mocama. They only had another 150 years left in Northeast Florida. They just didn’t know it yet.”
Two years later the French would be back at the St. Johns, forming at outpost called Fort Caroline.
That attracted the attention of the Spanish, who set up a settlement in St. Augustine and swiftly and rather easily dispatched the French. They then built religious missions across Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia and stayed in St. Augustine, a largely wretched outpost, to keep their claim on the sandy, low country of what would become the Southeast coast of the United States.
Clerics were tasked with converting the natives. The Spanish military, meanwhile, wanted them to assimilate into Spanish culture, making them more useful for their undermannned and undesirable home in Florida.
For the Mocama, what would follow were disease, warfare, attempts at being made Spanish — none of which will end up well for the coastal dwellers, whose ancestors had been there for hundreds of years.
By 1710, observers said that far northeastern Florida was basically empty of human life.
A few hundred Indians clung on at the Spanish outpost in St. Augustine for a few more decades, and some headed to Cuba with the Spanish. Others, fed up, had slipped away to join more isolated tribes farther inland.
But the days of the Mocama were done.
In the Timucuan langague, Mocama meant “sea” or “ocean,” and the people who lived in the islands and uplands in the area for thousands of years made a living off the sea. They trapped fish with nets and weirs, fished in the surf and in boats, and collected oysters by the millions, throwing the shells into piles that grew over the years.
“We don’t know what they called themselves, but we do know that in the 1600s the Spanish called this the Mocama district,” Ashley said.