UF Researchers: Food At Miami Circle Site Adds To Evidence Of Sacred Spot

Published: October 16 2002


GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The identification of Caribbean monk seal bones at the Miami Circle archaeological site by University of Florida scientists provides one more piece of evidence that the somewhat mysterious spot may have been used for sacred purposes nearly 1,600 years ago.

“UF’s work identifying the presence of a monk seal, a sea mammal that is now extinct, is one of the highlights of our research findings,” said Bob Carr, the executive director of the Florida Archaeological and Historical Conservancy who is analyzing materials from the site.

“We know from Spanish accounts that the monk seal was a food source reserved for elite classes,” he said. “Its presence here indicates perhaps a higher level of use by people on the elite level, whether they were chiefs, shamans or priests we don’t really know.”

An exhibit on South Florida’s prehistory focusing on the Miami Circle archaeological site is scheduled to open Thursday at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida in Miami.

Since its discovery in 1998 during demolition of an apartment complex to make way for condominiums, the ancient Tequesta Indian settlement has captivated the public and scientists alike because of a circular pattern cut in the rock that may represent an architectural footprint of either a council house or a temple, Carr said. Post holes have been found at other archaeological sites, but nothing as complete as a structural outline of a building has been discovered, he said.

Also found at the Miami site were two ax heads made from basalt, a stone found in the Appalachian mountains of eastern North America, suggesting a wide trade network among southeastern Native Americans, researchers said. Numerous types of exotic trade items, such as the axes, galena and pieces of copper, which came from further north, suggest this site was used for sacred, elite or special purposes, Carr said.

As part of the site investigation, food remains were analyzed at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus, just as scientists at other universities study plant and lithic remains representing stone tools.

Irv Quitmyer, the UF zooarchaeologist who examined the food remains, said they show the Miami Circle inhabitants were maritime people who consumed large amounts of fish high in the food chain such as shark, largemouth bass, grouper and snapper, in addition to small varieties such as minnows. Sooner or later, these pre-industrial people likely would have overfished the water resources, he said.

“We have this notion that probably comes down from the time of the philosopher Rousseau when he talks about ‘the natural man,’ saying that people close to the earth don’t have an effect on their surroundings,” Quitmyer said. “But that idea is now being called into question, and we at our laboratory have found a fair amount of evidence to suggest that this (idea) is not so.

Other than monk seal, no other food remains were found to indicate it was a sacred or ritual site, but there may have been other organic material that did not survive the sands of time, Quitmyer said. “We know at places like Key Marco, where you actually have wooden artifacts preserved, masks and other symbols of religion or hierarchy are found,” he said.

The presence of exotic animals or unusually large numbers of special markers, such as migratory ducks stacked upon one another, is an indication that a site might be a ritualistic one, Quitmyer said. Woodpeckers are another species with special significance in Southeastern cultures, he said.

Monk seals and other food sources that represented a person’s authority or position in society would have been considered royal food, so only those of the required status would have been allowed to eat it it, Quitmyer said.

“As these chiefs sat in court over their constituents, they probably would have been elevated on benches above the surrounding group and wearing clothing or adornments that symbolized their power,” he said.

The Miami Circle site is within the town of Tequesta and is known to Westerners as a result of Ponce de Leon’s voyage. “It’s one of the best records of what life was like in Biscayne Bay before the Spanish arrived,” Quitmyer said.


Cathy Keen, ckeen@ufl.edu
Irv Quitmyer, quitmyer@flmnh.ufl.edu, 352-392-1721