Prior to about 3000 BC, when Florida’s sea level was 100 meters (over 300 feet) lower than today, much of the present continental shelf was exposed. Although fewer than 100 prehistoric sites have been discovered scattered throughout Florida, many more undoubtedly remain submerged deep in the ocean and far from shore, where the coastline used to be.
When climate changes created the variety of environmental habitats seen in south Florida today, groups built permanent villages, which did not change much over many hundreds of years, but tools and pottery styles did. They assist archaeologists in locating and dating prehistoric sites, although most sites have been discovered accidentally and by laypeople, such as the Riddle effigy.
Signs of occupation by prehistoric populations include sand earthworks and burial mounds, shell mounds, black earth and shell middens, and embankments. Earthworks are artificial changes in land level, such as mounds, that can either be features or conceal them. Mounds had various purposes: a memorial or landmark over a burial place, a ceremonial or religious place, a refuse heap, or an embankment—earth or sand built up as a dam or a causeway for travel.
Refuse mounds, or kitchen middens, are primarily sand, black earth, or shells, depending on their locations. Middens of discarded oyster shells are common near the coast. Inland, black earth middens contain dark brown or black soil stained by decayed organic material, such as the remains of animals and marine life. Remnants of ceramics and tools, and objects of art may be included, when made of materials that do not break down in the soil. According to archaeologist Randolph J. Widmer, the kitchen middens of prehistoric people prove that “second only to what is now known as southern France—southern Florida was the most populated area on earth.”
© Historical Society of Palm Beach County.