The World According to Carr

Cynics say that to explore the depths of South Florida culture, all you have to do is scratch the surface. Dade County archaeologist Bob Carr digs deeper and knows better.

"Maybe my point of view is peculiar, but I don't see how any of us as individuals can't relate to a heritage for our community," he says. "We don't have to take a blood test or look at our family tree to try to find somebody Hispanic or Indian in it to feel connected to it. We can feel connected to it simply by sharing the land. In a sense, we redeem the land, because we're reusing a resource that's been used over and over now for 10,000 years. To me that's the connection. Maybe that's more difficult for other people to perceive, but I see that as part of my mission -- to make people feel connected to what's here."

Carr approaches his mission with a feeling that sometimes borders on the religious. He likes to speak of certain archaeological sites as "sacred"; he uses the word to imply a sanctification stronger and more general than that conferred by any one faith, a significance imparted through the sheer depth of human experience. By that measure, his holy of holies should be the Charles Deering Estate, where in 1985 he looked into a hole in the ground and saw a lost world straight out of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

By comparison to the rest of 1980s Dade, the Deering Estate itself was more than a little like the Land That Time Forgot. Dense tropical hammocks, untouched stands of pine, and one of Dade County's three surviving Indian burial mounds had been preserved on the enormous property, the legacy of International Harvester magnate Charles Deering's love for privacy and nature. Large estates have shielded many of South Florida's finest archaeological sites by preserving tracts of land intact and undeveloped for years; the 400-acre Deering holdings had been left nearly in a natural state since Deering purchased and razed the tiny town of Cutler in 1916. But no one could have predicted on the evidence then in hand what Carr and his team would find when they launched a salvage excavation of one of the estate's most distinctive features, a fifteen-foot-deep sinkhole that private collectors had recently begun to pillage. And Carr was not about to mention the strange and rather unscientific premonition that had come to him almost a year earlier, standing in that same hole -- an eerie feeling that he was in the presence of some very, very old bones indeed. "I had no basis for thinking that," he says today. "I had an intuitive sense about what was there, that it could have been early man. But it was something I kept to myself."

He did not have to keep it to himself for long. About three feet down into the sediment at the bottom of the hole, his crew hit a layer of limestone rocks, some of them fire-blackened. The burn marks were of a distinctive type Carr had seen before, a type not produced in fires of natural origin. To be blackened in that manner, the rocks had to have been repeatedly exposed to flames in a manmade hearth -- which made sense, since they were mixed in with hundreds of charred bones from deer, rabbits, and extinct giant armadillos that had probably been cooked over that same hearth. It seemed Carr and company had dug themselves into the middle of somebody's kitchen. And, to judge by that somebody's taste in flatware A stone and bone artifacts found scattered throughout -- the kitchen hadn't been used in a long, long time.

Exactly how long was hard to say; that answer would have to await the results of radiocarbon tests on charcoal from the ancient fires. But as Carr's team dug deeper, it quickly became apparent they were seeing farther into South Florida's human past than anyone had ever before. Below the burned rock was another layer of bones, some charred, many from beasts that had not been seen in the Americas for more than 8000 years: mammoths, primitive bison, camels, horses, and pony-size dire wolves. A few feet away, under a limestone ledge that overhung a small cave, were more bones -- not all of them from animals.

The people whose skeletal remains Carr found in the cave (at least five individuals) hunted for a living. They shaped the tools of their trade -- delicate, deadly Dalton and Bolen projectile points, the Florida hunter's ammunition of choice 10,000 years ago -- out of flint they obtained from upstate. Local limestone, heat-treated for hardness, would do for things such as hide scrapers and knives, but flint was what you needed to bring down big game. And these early people were obviously after big-game animals, holdovers from the most recent Ice Age, roaming a Serengeti-like landscape.

In the picture Carr began to put together, the Cutler Fossil Site (as it became known) had begun as a temporary hunting camp between 10,000 and 11,000 years ago, a time when lower sea levels broadened the Florida peninsula, cooler temperatures prevailed, sparse rainfall made water hard to come by, and the extinctions that would sweep mammoths, horses, and camels from the continent were not yet complete. Primeval as they seem today, the Everglades were still thousands of years in the future; the people who came to Cutler stalked their prey on the cool, dry plains that preceded the River of Grass, bringing kills back to their base in the sinkhole. After some time the hunters moved in permanently, staying on even after the gathering forces of extinction (the changing climate? humans themselves?) thinned the great beasts' herds and forced two-legged predators to substitute deer and rabbit meat for vanishing bison and mammoth. The year, determined by carbon dating of charcoal from the Cutler site hearth, was about 7700 B.C.

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