Secrets of 'Special' Ancient Native American Settlement in Florida Revealed

Advanced imaging technology has cast new light on a a pre-Columbian village in Florida, revealing insights into its role as an important regional hub.

The ancient village—which dates from 900 to 1200 A.D.—was discovered unexpectedly in 2010 by researchers from the University of Florida (UF) who were conducting environmental impact surveys following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The village is located on Raleigh Island, an uninhabited stretch of Florida's northern Gulf Coast. Since the UF scientists spotted signs of human presence in the area—in the form of several large ring structures—the site has been shrouded in mystery.

But now a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has revealed the true scale of the settlement and fascinating new insights into its economy.

The researchers—led by UF anthropologist Terry Barbour—found that the settlement was a major producer of beads made from seashells.

During the period when the settlement was thriving, these beads were highly-prized across the southeast of America due to their role in rituals. There are only a few coastal settlements in North America where evidence of extensive craft production on this sclae has been found.

"What we have here is a settlement at the source of this raw material at the time when marine shell was starting to become a heavily demanded social item," Barbour said in a statement.

"The fact we have strong evidence of bead manufacture at a site with equally impressive architecture to guide us in understanding how production was organized socially makes this place really special, and as of now the only place like it we are aware of," he said.

The new findings came after the UF team used a revolutionary technology known as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) which essentially enabled the researchers to "see through" the dense vegetation which covers the area.

The technology makes use of instruments fitted onto aircraft—in this case, drones. These instruments fire pulses of laser light towards the ground hundreds of thousands of times per second, enabling the creation of detailed 3D maps that reveal the topography of the land and any ancient man-made features that are not normally visible.

These LiDAR surveys can be conducted in a fraction of the time that it takes to investigate a site using traditional archaeological methods.

The team's investigations with the technology revealed a complex of at least 37 residential spaces enclosed within ridges of oyster shells up to 13 feet in height. The researchers say that the entire settlement was organized around the creation of beads, with evidence of production identified in each of the living spaces.

Raleigh Island settlement
A drone equipped with Light Detection and Ranging quickly collected architectural details and topographic data about the Raleigh Island settlement with unprecedented resolution. The images revealed rings made of oyster shells surrounding 37 residences. University of Florida

"In form, scale and purpose, the Raleigh Island settlement has no parallel in the archaeological record of the American Southeast," co-author of the study Ken Sassaman said in the statement.

According to the study, beads and other objects made from coastal shells in the Gulf were integral to the political economies of Native American chiefdoms in eastern North America during this period. However, archaeologists know very little about the production of the beads and the source of the shells.

"At places as distant from the coast as the lower Midwest, marine gastropods were imported in raw form and converted into beads and other objects by craftspeople at the behest of chiefs," the authors wrote in the study. "Bead-making at Raleigh Island is exceptional not only for its level of production at the supply end of regional demand but also for being outside the purview of chiefly control."

"Lightning whelk shells were imported into the interior of the continent by the thousands, where, at locations like Cahokia in Illinois, they were converted into beads, cups, gorgets, and other items," Sassaman told Newsweek. "Raleigh Island is the first and only known coastal site to provide evidence for the manufacture of shell beads in large quantities at the source of shell. We do not know where these beads ended up, but we have no evidence that they were consumed locally and thus presume they were exported out as finished products."

This article was update to include additional comments from Ken Sassaman.