America's shortest and busiest commercial river always has a tale to tell. In the earliest years of the Twentieth Century, the talk centered on the Tatums, a pair of rough-and-tumble brothers who were busy enraging Miami's populace.
The Tatum boys built the first bridge across the Miami River at Flagler Street and Northwest Third Avenue, then sat back and let extortion run its course. Pedestrians were levied a nickel. One-horse wagons, fifteen cents. Autos and two-horse rigs paid a quarter, the 1990 equivalent of six dollars.
The City of Miami seized the bridge from the Tatums in 1909, doing away with the tolls.
Mike Cutrera, 28-year-old cabinetmaker, likes to ponder this old river lore. His shop, Mike's Custom Cabinets, sits at the foot of the new Flagler Street bridge, which was built in 1979 a few yards upstream from the Tatums' roost. Seminole Indians used to park their canoes across the river to shop at J.D. Girtman's general store on the east bank. The Cuban Fisherman's Association, the heart of South Florida's sponge industry, occupies a broad piece of the nearby western shore.
In this rich setting, Cutrera takes his dogs Max, Sheba, and Sledge out to pee at least once a day. The peeing occurs on a tiny triangle of public land at the corner of Flagler Street and SW®MDNM¯ South River Drive. On March 13, as the dogs fertilized a 40-foot royal palm and Cutrera enjoyed his morning Marlboro, the happy foursome happened to look down and discover what may be a locally significant archaeological find.
Next to the palm, barely covered by dirt and weeds, lay large fragments of a skull, plus a two-pound stone axe head. Within minutes Cutrera uncovered 40 artifacts, including a half-dozen smaller axe heads, two partial jawbones with teeth, and various polished colored rocks.
Cutrera thinks county work crews inadvertently stirred the artifacts to the surface nine months ago while laying a sewer line on South River Drive. But he says he's amazed no one found them before him. A well-traveled footpath cuts across the little lot, and hundreds of people have probably stepped on the pieces. "The bums look down constantly, hunting for coins and stuff," Cutrera says. "It's really weird that they didn't notice them."
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Victor Vincent, associate director of Miami's Museum of Science, and Mario Ferrante, the institution's curator of natural history, examined Cutrera's findings last week.
"At this point we know [the skull fragments and jaw bones] are definitely human, and we know the tools are authentic and were made by humans, but when and where is the question," says Ferrante.
The axe heads - made of black basalt, a volcanic rock not found in Florida - are undoubtedly old, perhaps fashioned thousands of years ago and traded to local Indians. The human remains may be another matter. "You can't necessarily associate the skull fragments with the tools," says Ferrante. "If you could, you'd have a really nifty find because it would mean the human remains could be paleolithic Indians from 10,000 years ago. But you're dealing with a river here. [The bones] could have been buried next to the river and then dragged downstream by the current for miles from an entirely different site. Or they could be ten years old and completely unrelated to the tools."
County archaeologist Bob Carr will examine the artifacts this week to make a preliminary appraisal of their age. If it turns out the bones are recent remains, it is up to him to notify police. Several Miami murders and disappearances have been solved through the years using skulls or skeletal remains. Cutrera, meanwhile, continues to safeguard his discovery, and may make a necklace out of one particularly shiny stone.