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Pithlachocco: 'Extraordinary Find'

By Charles Flowers and Peter B. Gallagher

NEWNAN'S LAKE - The Indian who carved the oldest dugout canoe found here was working on his boat before Noah built the Ark.

In fact, the age and span of the largest aboriginal canoe find in history has confirmed that Florida's indigenous peoples - including ancestors of the modern Seminoles - made boats to travel this lake 3,000 years before Christ walked the earth.

The results from radiocarbon dating on 52 of the 87 Indian canoes found last May and June on this drought-parched lakebed near Gainesville show the oldest canoe was made about 5,000 years ago - one of the oldest craft ever found in Florida. The sample from the youngest canoe was about 500 years old -when Columbus was sailing. The rest fell within the 4,500-year span.

"Extraordinary Find," is how Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris headlined her Oct. 18 announcement.

"Nature has brought our canoes back to the surface to remind us all that we were here and have been here, in an unbroken chain, for many thousands of years," Chairman James E. Billie said. Billie visited the site in August, noting the lake's original name was Pithlachocco - a Seminole word for "place of long boats."

"It was called that for thousands of years for a reason," he said. "This may have been a 'factory' where boats were made."

The canoes were studied by a process known as radiocarbon dating. Core samples were taken and hand-carried to the Beta Analytic laboratory in Miami for study. By measuring the rate of decay of carbon, the age of any formerly living object can be fairly accurately estimated, archaeologists claim.

In 1990, a 6,000-year-old canoe was found buried in a peat layer below DeLeon Springs in Volusia County. And 19 Indian canoes, ranging in age from 320 to 3,500 years old, were unearthed from a peat farm in Clay County in the 1980s. That total was the previous largest cache of Indian canoes discovered anywhere before Pithlachocco find. A thousand-year-old dugout canoe pulled from the bottom of Lake Hancock is now on exhibit at the Depot Museum in Lake Wales.

But nothing of the age and magnitude of these canoes has been discovered anywhere, says Barbara Purdy, a Gainesville archaeologist who was part of the group that discovered the first seven canoes in early May. Lake resident and folksinger Dale Crider, state archaeologist Melissa Memory and a student group from Gainesville East Side High were also credited with discovering canoes.

"None has the antiquity, nor the number, that Florida has," said Purdy, comparing this find to those of other states. "This is a treasure beyond compare." The Pithlachocco canoe site ranks with the 1999 discovery of the Miami Circle in importance to Florida Indians, says Dr. Patricia Wickman, the Seminole Tribe Director of Anthropology and Geneaology: "This find is unique in the United States, but there is nothing surprising here. It only surprises the non-Indians. The area we now call Florida has been a refuge for human beings for 12,000 years.

"The Seminole people have traditions that tie them to Florida for many thousands of years. It is only up to us to confirm what the Seminole people and their ancestors have always known: that they have tremendous equity in the state of Florida. Two of the strongest evidences of this truth, to date, are the Miami Circle and Pithlachocco."

Deadhead Damage

The canoe site was partially destroyed by a deadhead logging operation permitted by the state. Purdy and other archaeologists advised the state of the fragile historical treasures 10 days before a logger began dragging logs from the same dry lake bed. State officials, locking horns on jurisdictional issues, were unable to accomodate archaeologists and numerous citizen complainers, some of whom also alleged environmental damage.

Articles on the issue published by the Seminole Tribune led to an Aug. 28 request from Gov. Jeb Bush to shut down the Pithlachocco - and all lakes-logging until the Cabinet can meet again on the issue.

Disturbingly, most of the archaeological site damage took place after the Division of Historical Resources (DHR) learned that the logging - permitted by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) on May 26 - was damaging the canoes.

Seven of the 87 canoes were damaged, according to Melissa Memory, the archaeologist who documented canoe damage in photographs and videotape. Seminole Chairman Billie, upset that state officials had not notified the Tribe of the find, flew to the lake site, to see the canoes - damaged and undamaged - first hand.

"This is a great event for the Seminoles," said Billie, who was credited by Secretary of State Harris for fast-tracking the radiocarbon dating after his visit. When state archaeologist Jim Miller indicated budget problems would delay the Pithlachocco radiocarbon work, Billie offered to pay for the science if it could be done right away. DHR Director Jan Matthews declined Billie's offer, but moved the Pithlachocco canoe radiocarbon work to top priority in her agency.

"We Indians will feel pride and dignity when we talk of those canoes. The Indians who made them have honored us tremendously and for that I will always be grateful." Billie also called for a return of the lake's original name. It was renamed after Maj. Dan Newnan, a 19th century Indian fighter. (For the complete text of the Chairman's statement, see page 2.)

Ancient Days

The time-span of the dated canoes suggests indigenous peoples have occupied the site since ancient times.

According to the English Bible, the Great Flood of the Old Testament occurred 2,348 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. The Hebrew Bible places the Flood at 2288 B.C. The difference between the two dates is 60 years - close to the error factor in the radiocarbon dating process. The first book of standard Christian and Catholic bibles, the Book of Genesis, dates back 6,000 years, making it concurrent with the DeLeon Springs canoe.

Archaeologists measure time differently than Bible scholars. According to Jim Miller, state archaeologist, there have been people in Florida for more than 12,000 years. Evidence includes a charred stick, found in the carapace of a giant tortoise at the bottom of Warm Mineral Springs near Sarasota. That was radiocarbon dated to an age of 12,600 years. In 1996, Kennewick Man - a skeleton determined to be a Native American - was found at the bottom of the Columbia River in Washington state with a full set of teeth and an arrowhead stuck in his hip. He was 9,000 years old.

The find at Newnan's Lake, while comparatively only half as old, offers other ancient puzzles.

Seventy percent of the Pithlachocco canoes tested between 3,000 and 5,000 years old, Secretary Harris reported. Four of the craft were dated between 2,300 and 2,700 years old. And the remainder fall into the "modern" category - between 500 and 1,300 years old. "I was stumped to figure out how so many canoes wound up in one place," Miller said. "Of course, with these dates stretching over so many years, it helps us understand that a little more. But it is still incredible that they are all there, and in such condition for their age."

One theory Miller offers may explain the sudden proliferation of human life in Florida 5,000 years ago: it literally sprang from the ground. Freshwater springs bubbled up and filled Newnan's Lake, possibly for the first time since the Ice Age.

"This new data demonstrates the great importance of water transportation among Florida's native people, and their reliance on the rich resources of the region we know today as Newnan's Lake," Secretary Harris said. She said that the dating "confirmed the extraordinary antiquity of the largest find of aboriginal dugout canoes known in the United States."

The canoes ranged in length from 15 to 31 feet.

Seminole/Maskoki Canoes

Ray McGee, who did partial excavations of several of the canoes when he, Purdy and Erika Simons of Gainesville found the first seven on May 16, said it is extremely difficult to detect any differences between the most ancient and modern canoes.

"By looking at them, I couldn't tell the newest from the oldest," McGee said. He said "at least half" of the canoes he examined had thwarts, or raised areas in the center where a paddler could brace himself as he poled or paddled the craft.

Closer study may also reveal which were carved with metal tools. Purdy said metal tools came to Florida after European contact, which began less than 500 years ago, in 1513 A.D. Before that, Indians are believed to have used shell or stone tools to scrape dugout canoes, after first charring the insides. Neither the Tribe nor the state has any plans for removing any of the canoes.

Purdy, the author of academic articles on Indian canoes and a chapter in "The Art and Archaeology of Florida Wetlands," said the latest radiocarbon findings "suggest that there aren't a lot of Seminole canoes out there, because there weren't a lot of Seminoles out there."

However, Dr. Wickman calls that position "no longer defensible." The Seminoles, she maintains, are descendants of a "major cultural family": the Maskoki peoples of the Southeast. Dr. Wickman (see her column on page 17), has been invited to a state level summit meeting on the future of deadhead logging, along with representatives of Gov. Bush, the DEP, DHR, and the Poarch Creek Band of Alabama Indians, who have members living in Northwest Florida.

The meeting is set for Nov. 6 at Secretary Harris' office in Tallahassee. The Governor and Cabinet will also revisit the issue in November, says Cabinet aide Jose Boscan. Environmentalists, led by the national Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy and the Florida Wildlife Federation, plan to use the Pithlachoco incident to strengthen their case for more restrictions - perhaps even a total ban - of the controversial deadhead logging practice in Florida waters.

"Ironically, there is no land or water area in this state that has not been walked upon or used by a human being over the past many milleniums," says Dr. Wickman. "I don't know where in Florida they could log without the chance of coming into contact with historical artifacts."

For complete coverage of the Pithlachocco canoes, log onto the Seminole Tribe's official website at

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