After two years of painstakingly searching for targets, a team of dedicated researchers believes it is within striking distance of uncovering cultural evidence of early human occupation in the now submerged continental shelf of the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
The expedition of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Ocean Exploration and Research commenced off the Florida coast in the summer of 2008 when a distinguished group of scientists led by Mercyhurst College archaeologists James M. Adovasio and C. Andrew Hemmings identified and mapped buried river channels that could potentially help document the late Pleistocene landscape. In the summer of 2009, they further traced the river systems along whose beaches prehistoric people may have populated and identified raw materials that they may have used in tool-making.
This summer, using sophisticated sub-bottom profiling and side-scan sonar technology, divers will return to these previously identified high-potential locations with an airlift dredge to remove the sediment apron and attempt to excavate archaeological materials. The third installment of the NOAA-funded expedition -- "Exploring the Submerged New World 2011" -- is slated for Aug. 9-18. (The underwater expedition did not proceed in the summer of 2010 due to the BP Oil disaster and related concerns.)
"We understand the prehistoric landscape far better than we did when we started and we have fine-tuned our methods and our technology to put us in the best position to recover enough data both artifactually and in plant and animal remains to get a sense of what life may have been like along these now submerged coastlines," Adovasio said. "We stand at the threshold of discovering lifestyles that may not have a parallel in the archaeological record of North America because they are underwater and never before seen."
Adovasio, best known for his work at the pre-Clovis Meadowcroft Rockshelter in southwestern Pennsylvania that revealed human artifacts dating back 14,000 to 16,000 years, has stood at the vanguard of First Americans studies for decades. The opportunity to extend his reach from the terrestrial to the nautical comes with the recognition that as far back as 22,000 years ago a substantial portion of Earth's water was in the form of glacial ice atop the continents. Today, he said, more than 9 million square miles of what used to be coastlines around the world are underwater and may well represent the first chapter in the peopling of the Americas.
Hemmings, one of the leading Paleoindian underwater archaeologists in North America, is optimistic about this summer's project.
"My feeling is, given a little time to probe the sediments with a dredge, we will find human artifacts," he said.
In addition to Adovasio and Hemmings, the research team includes Dr. Thomas Loebel of the University of Illinois-Chicago Circle and six graduate students from colleges and universities across the U.S., among them Ben Wells and Kimberly Smith, who earned their undergraduate degrees at Mercyhurst. The expedition will also include a NOAA Teacher-at-Sea, Steven Allen.
Besides NOAA, the operation is funded by Mercyhurst College, much of the latter institution's commitment in in-kind services. The research vessel and crew are leased through the University of South Florida.
Adovasio has made multiple presentations on the expedition's progress in the past year, including an address to The Smithsonian Associates, Washington, D.C., as part of a program on "Underwater Settlements: Our New Frontier;" and at the 76th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Sacramento, Calif. Adovasio and Hemmings also presented a paper titled "The Inundated Landscape from Florida's West Coast to the LGM Shoreline: Recent Investigations of Buried Features and Potential Early Human Site Locations" at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) meetings in New Orleans, La.