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Ancient canoes surface as South Florida lake retreats
Archaeologists say the dugouts may have belonged to Calusas.
Published October 7, 2007
IMMOKALEE - From a distance, the brown object near the bank of Lake Trafford looks like a log, or maybe a big alligator.
Close up, though, it becomes identifiable as a large section of a dugout canoe, possibly more than 1,000 years old.
As lake levels have dropped during the ongoing drought, normally submerged areas have become dry. Ten canoes, long buried in the sand, have been exposed.
"They started showing up a couple of months ago, but I wanted to verify what they were," said Ski Olesky, owner of the Lake Trafford Marina. "That's why I didn't say anything. Now, the water is coming back up, and pretty soon, you won't be able to see them."
Archaeologist George Provenzali of Janus Research in Tampa was called in to measure the canoes and take samples for radiocarbon dating to decipher their age and to determine what kind of trees they're from.
The largest canoe fragment was almost 14 feet long; some seem to be cypress, others pine. Radiocarbon dating should be complete within two months, Provenzali said.
"The dates will probably vary, and until we get the data back, we can't say much," Provenzali said. "But the dugouts are very old. Those things are amazing: You take a sample, and it looks like the trees were cut yesterday."
Dead plant material generally breaks down quickly, but the canoes had been buried in anaerobic sediment without oxygen where organisms that cause decomposition can't live.
Dredging activity at the lake and natural wave action have uncovered the canoes.
In the spring and summer of 2000, a drought in north-central Florida lowered water levels in Newnan's Lake east of Gainesville, and archaeologists discovered 87 500- to 5,000-year-old canoes. Florida's oldest canoes, discovered at DeLeon Springs in Volusia County, are 6,000 years old.
"Canoes of any sort are very rare in South Florida," said Bill Marquardt, curator in archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. "Many more are known in the lakes in North Florida. Anytime a water-logged canoe is found in South Florida, it's something we can learn from."
At the time of contact with Europeans in the early 16th century, all of South Florida was dominated by the Calusa Indians, a fishing culture whose population centers were along the coast at such places as Pineland on Pine Island and Mound Key in Estero Bay.
Researchers don't know whom the Trafford canoes belonged to.
"Historically, South Florida was under the control of the Calusa," Marquardt said. "So it may have been other groups subservient to the Calusa. We don't know the tribal names. It might have been the Muspa (from the Marco area) or related Indians from around Lake Okeechobee."
There are no plans to remove the canoes from the lake, Provenzali said.
"If we retrieve them, in a year or two, they'll disintegrate," he said. "We're hoping the rain comes and covers them, and they can be preserved for hundreds or thousands of years."
These aren't the first ancient canoes found at Lake Trafford, said marina mechanic and guide Bubba Blaylock: During a dry spell a few years ago, some canoes were exposed, but then rains raised the lake level and water covered them.
"Over the years, I've heard stories about people's grandfathers who'd say, 'Hey, there are canoes in Lake Trafford,'" Blaylock said. "Others would say, 'No way, I've seen the lake low, and there aren't any canoes.'
"But I tell you: I wouldn't cross this lake in a canoe like this, not with all the alligators out there. Maybe the Indians had more influence with their young men, but I would have had to say, 'No.'"