About 14,000 years ago, modern humans roamed to South Florida and lived side by side with mammoths, mastodons and saber-tooth tigers.
That, at least, is what Florida Atlantic University scientists hope to prove by analyzing ancient DNA found at an archaeological dig in Vero Beach.
If they can confirm the age of some very brittle bones, it will fill a major gap in human history, said Greg O'Corry-Crowe, an FAU associate research professor. "It would imply that humans were on this continent much longer than originally thought," he said.
Officially called the Old Vero Man site, the dig is considered one of the most important archaeological finds in North America. A large number of animal and human bones were discovered there, providing a rare glimpse of the Florida landscape at the end of the last Ice Age.
The site was originally discovered in 1915 when a farming company dredging a relief canal spotted part of a human skull and 44 other bones from up to five individuals, male and female.
After inspecting the bones, Dr. E.H. Sellards, the state geologist in the early 1900s, developed a controversial theory: the bones were up to 14,000 years old so therefore humans co-existed with large prehistoric animals. Most experts at the time believed humans arrived in North America 4,000 to 6,000 years ago, long after those animals went extinct.
Mercyhurst University Archaeological Institute, based in Erie, Pa., and which is overseeing the Vero Beach dig, wants to prove Sellards was correct.
It recruited FAU, which operates one of the few ancient DNA laboratories in the nation, to determine the age of the bones. FAU already has pinpointed the age of ancient Beluga whales and other prehistoric mammals in Florida and Alaska.
FAU "is certainly the preeminent facility for doing this kind of work," said James Adovasio, provost of the Mercyhurst Institute and a world-renowned archaeologist.
Adovasio said FAU initially will analyze animal fossils because Mercyhurst is still trying to locate all the human bones found at the Vero site. He said many were dispersed over the decades to various museums, such as the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.
The overall idea, he said, is to establish how long it took humans to migrate to Florida and how they adapted once they arrived. It's part of the quest to piece together the big picture of human history.
Based on the fossil record, here is what many archaeologists believe:
Modern humans first appeared about 195,000 years ago in East Africa. Likely chasing prey, they moved across Asia and what was then a land bridge to Alaska, arriving in North America about 20,000 to 25,000 years ago. They then took 5,000 to 6,000 years to cross the continent to Florida.
"The old model basically had these folks sprinting across North America, chasing and killing big animals," Adovasio said. "We know now they moved very gradually.'' Continue reading