Cutler Fossil Site

“If there is such a thing as a hole within the thin carpet of civilization that plunges to the darkest recesses of Florida’s prehistory, then the solution hole at Charles Deering Estate Park at Cutler is such a place.” Bob Carr

The Cutler Fossil Site is not accessible to the public. It is the oldest archeological site in Southeast Florida and therefore susceptible to degradation due to human activity. The Deering Estate, however, sometimes organizes tours and grants access to groups.

“The Cutler site 12,000 years ago was a deep solution hole beneath an outcrop of elevated limestone rising only a few feet higher than the surrounding forest and savannahs. The limestone was undercut with fissures, creating a shallow overhang cave. The solution hole may have been vegetated by a ring of oaks and intermittent pine, a forest oasis surrounded by grasslands. The solution hole and its spring of fresh water provided a secure den for carnivores, such as jaguars and dire wolves, although different species probably never shared the feature at the same time.” Bob Carr

“Based on carbon-dated plant material from hearths found after digging down into the layers of Ice Age bone, Cutler Fossil Site features evidence of human use dating to roughly 9700 BP (“before present”), lasting through the Archaic (5,000-2,500 BP) and into the Glades period (1,000 BP-1750 AD).That’s right: humans have been present in South Florida for roughly 10,000 years. To put such a large number into perspective, Khufu’s tomb (better known as the Great Pyramid of Giza) was constructed roughly 4,500 years ago.” Dig This! Public Archaeology in South Florida

In 1979, two people searching for wood to carves knives stumbled upon what appeared to be extremely hard and polished wood. They took their findings to Bob Carr, the MIami-Dade County archeologist at the time. Carr realized the objects were in fact not wood, but rather fossilized horse teeth. Unfortunately, in the years it took to ward off developers and protect the site, an amateur archeologist looted the site digging 11 pits and stole fossils.

Bob Carr and his team of professional archeologists began a proper excavation in 1986. On the second day of excavation they found the first human remain-a bone fragment. It would not be the last. The fact the bones were disarticulated and under a group of large oolite rocks indicates a ritual burial.

The remains of five distinct individuals were identified at the Cutler Fossil Site. One female, one male, one unidentified adult, and two younger humans were identified. In addition, some of the bones were thoroughly burned in a manner consistent with cremation. The conclusions based on this evidence are all hypothetical but a ritualized cremation and/or burial implies a respect for the dead and cultural traditions.

In addition the bones of 190 different species were found.

Shalenah Ivey of the FIU Honors College holds a fossil at the Deering Estate (Photo by JW Bailly CC BY 4.0)

“The Cutler Fossil is a watering hole into which all manner of Pleistocene beasts toppled. Sandwiched between the limestone layers of the sinkhole, some 16 feet above the current sea level of the nearby Biscayne Bay, were bones of dire wolfs, mastodons, camels, llamas, saber-toothed tigers, and the American lion. Though the site is protected, the city has sprawled around it in the intervening 10,000 years. Looking down into the ancient pit from the ridge, you can hear the rumble of nearby cars. But the site is hidden and sheltered from the road and the water, protected by its isolation and its elevation.” Jessica Leigh Hester, Wired

A wide variety of stone artifacts were found, made of both local materials as well stone that originates from the northern and central Gulf Coast.

“Marilyn Masson assessed 61 limestone objects, including axes (or celts), biface knives, scrapers, blades, and spoke shaves. This assemblage of expedient artifacts is important because it reveals that the people at the Cutler Fossil site were able to adapt to an environment lacking chert or other hard stones. Masson observed tooling marks and use marks on some of the artifacts suggesting manufacturing techniques consistent with chert tools, an observation indicating that old techniques were being adapted to new materials. Many of the limestone artifacts appear to have been burnt or heat treated.” Bob Carr

“The site may have served its first human hosts as both a shelter and a source of fresh water. The evidence of fires and burnt bones attest to meal preparation, and the artifacts reveal their technology and subsistence. Human remains representing at least five individuals were found at the site, and it is obvious that most of these were associated with intentional graves. Although largely fragmentary, the human bone clusters suggest that some may have been primary interments.” Bob Carr

“The oldest archeological site in Southeast Florida is the Cutler Fossil Site at the Deering Estate. The Cutler Fossil Site was discovered in 1985 by amateur fossil collectors when they climbed into a 5 by 6 m sinkhole on the Charles Deering Estate in Miami-Dade County (Carr 1986, 1987). Excavation of 22 square meters of the site by archeologists and study by paleontologists documented a late Pleistocene Rancholabrean fossil deposit, including remains of extinct vertebrates like the dire wolf, cave bear, sabertooth cat, horse, mastodon and mammoth (Emslie and Morgan 1995). Interestingly, paleoecological analysis, based on the species present, suggest that a hardwood hammock and/or pinelands existed near the sinkhole around 15,000 years ago, similar to modern conditions. Carr (1986) describes three areas of human activity at the site, including a deposit of burned limestone boulders and faunal bone; a deeper deposit with some human remains in association with extinct animal bones; and one area that may contain the intentional burials of several individuals. Emslie and Morgan (1995) describe this burial area, noting that human remains, representing three adults and two children were recovered from the deposit, about 1 m below the surface. The area of burned limestone and faunal bone produced one radiocarbon date of 9,670 +/- 120 years B.P. and stone tools reminiscent of the Early Archaic Dalton complex. Emslie and Morgan(1995:81) suggest the human remains found even lower in the deposits, in associated with the remains of extinct animals like the dire wolf, may be mixed from upper strata. The Cutler Fossil Site is very significant in its contribution to our understanding of early environments in southeastern Florida and remains as the only site with evidence for occupation of the area during the Early Archaic.” National Register of Historic Places

Hiking Trail at the Deering Estate (Photo by JW Bailly / CC BY 4.0)

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING

Carr, Robert S. Digging Miami. University Press of Florida. Kindle Edition.

EDITORS AND LAST UPDATE
John William Bailly 14 January 2023
COPYRIGHT © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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