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.

Ninety-seven centuries later, Dade County residents and the Florida archaeology establishment greeted the news of Carr's discoveries with astonishment and more than a little incredulity. Short of discovering a Viking longship under Biscayne Bay, it was difficult for many people to imagine anything more improbable than the recovery of 10,000-year-old human bones from South Florida. (North America's oldest human remains were found in Texas and are estimated to be 15,000 years old.) And yet there was the evidence, including an intact skull protected by carefully placed rocks, piling up in the hands of specialists from around the nation and the world -- botanists examining plant remains and pollen, paleontologists working over the fossils, physicists using particle accelerators to check the age of bones and other organic material. Project assistant Bill Johnson was even doing heat-treatment experiments on limestone to see if he could harden it to match artifacts found at Cutler. The past had spoken, and the present was forced to take notice. "I think a lot of people were really shocked," Carr says today. "Not only people who lived down here, but even scientists. Because this idea of South Florida being kind of a backwash of humanity is shared by many scholars and archaeologists. I think that's part of the problem, when you have even the intellectuals, the scholars, perceiving this place as disconnected from the past."

Carr still wonders at the persistent power of the Cutler Fossil Site, ten millennia after the first people took shelter in it. Before starting work there, he found Santeria offerings on the site, and an altar set up inside the sinkhole. Just below that was "the marijuana horizon," as he calls it, "a [cultural] horizon that dealt with the 1960s. It's always had a certain magnetism," he says of the Cutler site. "You know, people would say, 'Oh, look at that, kids would go down and drink beer and smoke pot.' Everybody who lived in the neighborhood has been there. All kinds of rites of passage were performed in that hole on top of the dead bodies of dire wolves and jaguars, little knowing that the whole history of their biological impulses was just below them. The base animal instinct of survival. Life and death in one hole."

There are holes all around today as Carr picks his way across the cratered limestone floor of South Dade's Monkey Jungle. Small holes, just the right size to cripple you; big water-filled holes, just the right size to drown you. From atop the wire-mesh cage where the tourists are kept, the small, gray kings of this jungle watch with jaded detachment as Carr proves he, too, is a primate, scrambling down the steep, slippery slope of a medium-size hole. "Here's one we haven't been in yet," he says, pulling up short of the bottom, where the hole seems to turn and twist off into a horizontal passage. "There's a lot of sediment exposed. This is definitely a cave." Thinking better of proceeding on the wet limestone, he turns to carefully climb back out.

About 60 yards away, on the other side of the enclosed tourist walkway, is a very large, water-filled limestone cavity that Monkey Jungle employees call the "alligator hole." They call it that, logically enough, because alligators live there -- two very big ones slowly patrolling the confines of their rocky pool. Ancient as they may seem, the alligators are only the hole's latest tenants. Last spring Carr began finding extraordinary things in sediment dredged from its bottom in the late Sixties and dumped behind the nearby orangutan compound. There, with the help of weekend volunteers from a local archaeology club, he has been operating what amounts to a fossil mine.

It spreads out to the left as Carr emerges from the forest, a hummocky strip of bare ground stretching about a hundred feet along an electrified monkey-containment fence. The reddish dirt that occasionally surfaces in the spoil piles offers a hint of its richness; the same red soil, laid down tens of thousands of years ago, toward the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, yielded many of the Cutler fossils. Carr zeros in on a screening box half-full of it, a prospector seeking color in a streambed, digging in with his fingers. "Here's some bone fragments -- see the marrow on it?" he says intently. "There's part of a little mammal jaw there. This is a scute, part of the external skeleton from an extinct armadillo. All these little brown fragments, they're almost all [bone]. It just shows you how much stuff is here. Mostly small stuff, but we have found some things that are -- look at this!" He holds up a squarish, sharp-edged bone. "It's a horse's tooth. From an 11,000-year-old horse!"

Carr, turning away from the screen to scan the ground, is bemoaning his failure to bring a bag. "I should have known there'd be lots of stuff after these heavy rains," he mutters from full stoop, grabbing bits of brown bone from the moist earth like a two-handed vacuum cleaner. "Here's a green break," he says, running a finger over a shattered bone. "Those are the kind of breaks you get with a carnivore breaking the bone and leaving that kind of pattern.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest