Is This Florida Island Home to a Long-Lost Native American Settlement?

Historians in the News
tags: Florida, archaeology, Native American history

Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a possible Indigenous settlement in northeast Florida.

As Matt Soergel reports for the Florida Times-Union, researchers from the University of North Florida (UNF) think they’ve finally found Sarabay, a local community cited by French and Spanish writers in records dating back to the 1560s. Its exact whereabouts had remained unknown—until now.

According to a statement, the team discovered a range of Indigenous and European artifacts on Big Talbot Island, located off the coast of Jacksonville. Coupled with cartographic map evidence, the finds suggest that the site once housed a group of Mocama Native Americans.

“No doubt we have a 16th-century Mocama community,” dig leader Keith Ashley tells the Times-Union.

The UNF archaeologist first suspected that he’d found Sarabay’s ruins in 1998, when he and his students began excavating Big Talbot. (Subsequent digs unearthed fish and animal bones, jewelry beads, and other apparent Indigenous artifacts, as Sky Lebron reported for WJCT News in 2019.) Now, Ashley is almost certain that the island hosted a Mocama settlement.

Highlights of the discovery include more than 50 pieces of early Spanish pottery, as well as Indigenous ceramics that date to the late 16th or early 17th century. The researchers also excavated bone, stone and shell artifacts and charred corn cob remains.

“This is not just some little camp area,” Ashley tells the Times-Union. “This is a major settlement, a major community.”

The dig is part of the UNF Archaeology Lab’s ongoing Mocama Archaeological Project, which seeks to shed light on the Indigenous people who lived along northern Florida’s coast prior to Europeans’ arrival in the region in 1562. As Soergel wrote for the Times-Union in 2009, the Mocama have long been considered part of the Timucua—a broader Indigenous network split into 35 chiefdoms—but recent scholarship suggests they formed a distinct group. (Mocama is a dialect of the Timucua language.)

Per the National Park Service (NPS), the Timucua lived in northeast and north central Florida from as early as 3000 B.C.; at its height, the civilization boasted a population of between 200,000 and 300,000.

Read entire article at Smithsonian

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