Vero may hold clue to America’s first humans


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For 100 years there has been a large, troubling asterisk next to Vero Beach in archaeological literature.

Vero may hold clue to America's first humans
13 000 year old bone fragment carved with an incised image of a mammoth
or mastodon from Vero beach [Credit: University of Florida]

The sleepy oceanside town best known for its oranges and former spring training camp of the Los Angeles Dodgers is also believed by some archaeologists to be the only site in North America where human bones have been found with extinct Ice Age animals — proof that humans were in North America at least 13,000 years ago.

No one knows exactly how long humans have lived in North America. Tools and artifacts found at other sites indicate that humans may have been in North America that long ago, but the bones of what has come to be known as Vero Man could finally prove it.

“It needs to be done,” said Barbara Purdy, professor emerita of anthropology at the University of Florida who has long argued that the Vero Man site should be excavated again. Purdy, 86, jokingly calls the site the Old Girl site rather than the Vero Man site because the first bones found belonged to a woman.

Vero may hold clue to America's first humans
Vero Canal site, showing where excavation for human remains was made
[Credit: Sellards/Florida Memory/State Library and Archives of Florida]

Although she “won’t be going down and getting in the pit,” she received credit for her advocacy recently during a news conference announcing a partnership between Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa., and the Old Vero Ice Age Sites Committee, an Indian River County nonprofit, that will begin digging at the site in January. “They’ve got the whole world watching.”

The dig is as much about proving whether Vero Man lived during the Ice Age as it is about settling a century-old tiff between Dr. Elias Howard Sellards, Florida’s state geologist from 1907-1918, and Arles Hrdlicka, curator of the Physical Anthropology Department at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History from 1910-1940.

Sellards, who examined the site and the bones himself, determined that because the bones were found in the same stratum, or layer, of Earth as animals that went extinct in the late Ice Age — including mammoths, mastodons, giant saber-tooth tigers and bear-sized sloths — the human remains must be at least that old. However, Hrdlicka disputed Sellards’ findings, saying the fossilized human bones were only a few thousand years old and were found in the same layer as the extinct animals because humans buried their dead.

Vero may hold clue to America's first humans
Vero may hold clue to America's first humans
Vero human remains [Credit: Florida Memory/
State Library and Archives of Florida]

Today, that question could be easily answered by testing the amount of elements in the bones, such as carbon. But carbon testing would not be discovered for another 35 years after the bones were found in 1913. Why not test the bones now? Because some were lost, misplaced or damaged by techniques used at the time to preserve them, such as soaking the bones in parafin or painting them with varnish, said C. Andrew Hemmings, a professor at Mercyhurst.

Hemmings, the director of archaeology for the dig, said the riff between Sellards and Hrdlicka has created a split among archaeologists, which is why Vero Man “gets a big asterisk” in archaeological literature.

“The bottom line is, as of today — a century later — nobody knows,” Hemmings said. “Whatever the answer is, our goal is to get to the right answer.”

Vero may hold clue to America's first humans
Cast from original human skull fragments found in place with mega-fauna fossils
at the “Vero Man Site” [Credit: Vera Zimmerman (1996)/Smithsonian
Institution Paleontology Archives in Washington D.C.]

Besides settling that debate, bones that may be found in the upcoming dig could also help answer another vexing question: How did we get here? Sometime between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago, the glacial ice that covered North America began to melt and humans found their way to North America. Their route is still not known.

Some believe hunters travelled across the Bering land bridge from Siberia to Alaska and then made their way south. Another theory is that migrants from Asia may have worked their way down the American Pacific coast by boat. Another controversial model suggests that the first Americans may have arrived from Europe. Pointing to similarities between some North American and 20,000-year-old European tools, proponents suggest migrants may have crossed the frozen north Atlantic via Greenland and then travelled down the east coast.

If bones are found, sophisticated testing could also identify where the humans came from, Henning said. Additional tests could also reveal information about how early humans dealt with rising sea levels and climate change and the impact those had on Florida’s aquifers, Hemmings added.

“There are aspects of this that really reflect on the world today,” he said. “It’s not just some esoteric thing to prove that this guy was wrong 100 years ago.”

Author: Christine Stapleton | Source: Miami Herald [December 12, 2013]



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