“A fascinating recounting of the early discovery of a Paleolithic human and the issues that were engendered by various opposing scientific views of the validity of the discovery and its analysis.”—Dennis Stanford, coauthor of Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America’s Clovis Culture
“Since the site’s discovery long ago, the complete story of the Old Vero Site has never been told. This is an informative and entertaining account of this remarkable site and its history in American archaeology.”—Thomas D. Dillehay, author of The Settlement of the Americas: A New Prehistory
“Johnson has thoroughly investigated, and transformed into a very readable narrative, an entire century of accumulated knowledge about the research, controversy, and curiosity surrounding the Old Vero archaeological site.”—Barbara A. Purdy, author of Florida’s People During the Last Ice Age
“An engaging account of the first Paleoindian site discovered in eastern North America.”—Robert S. Carr, author of Digging Miami
“Johnson skillfully weaves a tale of prehistoric life in Florida with the 100-year search to understand that long lost world at the Vero Site.”—Andy Hemmings, Florida Atlantic University
In 1916, to the shock of the scientific community and the world at large, a Florida geologist discovered human remains mixed with the bones of prehistoric animals in a Vero Beach canal and proclaimed that humans had lived in North America since the Ice Age. These new findings by Elias Sellards flew in the face of prevailing wisdom, which held that humans first came to the continent only 6,000 years ago. His claim was snubbed by the top scientists of his day, he was laughed out of the state, Vero’s fame declined, and the skull Sellards found—famously known as “Vero Man”—was lost.
An Ice Age Mystery tells the story of Sellards’s exciting find and the controversy it sparked. In the years that followed, other archaeological discoveries and the rise of radiocarbon dating established that humans did arrive in North America earlier than previously thought. The skull, however, was never recovered, and many people began to wonder: What exactly had Sellards found at Vero? And what else might be buried there?
One hundred years after the first Vero discovery, construction plans threatened to cover up the legendary dig site, and a band of citizens and archaeologists protested. Excavations were reopened. Archaeologists uncovered 14,000-year-old burnt mammal bones and charcoal, signs of a human presence, and found further evidence to indicate a continuous human occupation of the site for several thousand years. Prior to the latest excavations an etching on a bone possibly 13,000 years old was discovered that could be the oldest piece of art in America. Sellards had been right all along.
Many questions still remain. Who were these people? Where did they come from? And how did they get here? This book draws readers into the past, present, and future of one of the most historic discoveries in American archaeology.
Rody Johnson is the author of several books, including Chasing the Wind: Inside the Alternative Energy Battle; The Rise and Fall of Dodgertown: 60 Years of Baseball in Vero Beach; and Different Battles: The Search for a World War II Hero.
Excerpt from Chapter 2, “Early Man in the Americas”
On a morning in early January 2014, the roar of two excavators swept over the landscape along the Main Canal, across from the Vero Beach Airport. The machines dug in tandem, picking up the soil and piling it 100 yards to the west. Back and forth, back and forth, the machines rumbled, removing the overburden to expose the excavation surface of the Vero Site.
Drop back 99 years to an October day in 1915. Local Vero farmer Frank Ayers poked along the bank of the Main Canal that had recently been dug, looking for ice age mammal bones. He saw a bone protruding from the bank. Florida state geologist Dr. E. H. Sellards would confirm that it was human, thus starting a debate that has continued to this day.
The question over the years was this: Were the human remains at Vero “Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden,” as some newspapers at the time suggested; were they prehistoric ice age people; or were they merely more recently buried Indians?
Two events in New Mexico changed the thinking about when the first Americans arrived. In 1908 most of the town of Folsom, New Mexico, was washed away in a flood. While out riding after the flood, a black cowboy, George McJunkin, saw a collection of bones exposed by the torrent of water that churned up the bottom of an arroyo called Dead Horse Gulch. Born a slave, this self-educated, curious man who studied geology and natural history realized the significance of his find. He knew the bones were from bison, but these bison were far larger than the modern buffalo. He tried to no avail to contact scientists in the Southwest about his find. He died in 1921.
Finally, in 1926, Jesse Figgins, director of the Colorado Museum of Natural History, initiated a dig in the area. His purpose was to find a bison skeleton that he could reconstruct for his museum. Over three years 32 bison skeletons and 26 spear points were discovered. The bison were huge, 12 to 15 feet high at the shoulder.
It was presumed that at this site a band of 30 humans were proceeding north into Colorado. They came upon a group of bison and herded them into a canyon. They then slaughtered the herd with spears that were either thrown or launched with atlatls from the top of the arroyo. Other than the projectile points from the spears, no other evidence of human beings was found. No shelter and no tools were discovered. If there had been a campsite nearby, perhaps it had washed away.