Historical Museum of Southern Florida

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First Arrivals: The Archaeology of Southern Florida

Southern Florida’s first inhabitants arrived here as early as twelve thousand years ago. They were descendants of populations that probably migrated to America from northeastern Asia, across a land bridge between Alaska and Siberia. Early peoples in southern Florida hunted mammoth, horse, bison, and other large animals. After the extinction of large game around 9000 B.C., people relied on small mammals, aquatic resources, and wild plants for food. Crucial to their survival was their ability to adapt to southern Florida’s diverse natural environments: a coastal ridge, wetlands, and the ocean.

Over the centuries, Indian populations in southern Florida grew, and larger settlements developed. Pottery and tool production increased. Exchange networks were established with other cultures throughout the southeastern United States. By A.D. 1600, over 300 Indians lived at the mouth of the Miami River, while hundreds more were scattered throughout the Everglades, the coast, and offshore barrier islands.

Artifacts uncovered by archaeologists in southern Florida, along with rare European accounts from the 16th - 18th centuries, are the only evidence we have of the region's earliest inhabitants. By studying this evidence, we can gain a sense of how these peoples developed cultures that enabled them to live in our unique environment for thousands of years.

Miami Circle painting

A Changing Landscape
Late Paleo-Indian to Early Archaic Periods
10,000 B.C. - 5000 B.C.

In 1985 archaeologists uncovered a cave-like sinkhole in southern Dade County, containing the fossilized bones of animals (such as horse, peccary, dire wolf, and jaguar) that have been extinct for over 10,000 years. Now called the “Cutler Fossil Site,” this hole was once a home for southern Florida’s earliest inhabitants. Just above the layers of fossilized animal bones, archaeologists found a hearth, tools, and human remains. The site area was occupied over a period of many thousands of years: first by Paleo-Indians (10,000 - 7500 B.C.), who occasionally hunted large animals such as mastodon and mammoth, and later by Early Archaic Indians (7500 - 5000 B.C.), who relied on smaller animals and marine resources for food. These early peoples lived in small, dispersed groups. The only artifacts they left behind are stone tools, such as spear points, scrapers, and drills.

During the Late Paleo-Indian period, Southern Florida was cooler and drier than it is today, but was also subject to periods of extreme warming and cooling every few hundred years. Though the shoreline was farther east, the present-day limestone coastal ridge had formed and provided higher ground for human settlement. The southern Florida environment was changing, but it would be another 2000 years before the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee, and Biscayne Bay would form.

Archaeologist mapping artifacts inside the Cutler Fossil Site.



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