Cultural Ecology of the Atlantic Coast: Shell Middens and Ancient Tidal Forests

By Mary Fairchild

MfairladyGeorgia(Dungeness ; Cumberland Island.)

It was just a year ago that I had first stumbled across some ancient scattered shells by the Carnegie Ruins on Cumberland Island and couldn’t stop thinking about them…  Cultural ecology is a map of relationships between living things and their group dynamics over time.

The Dungeness Historic District on Cumberland Island(pictured) and the surrounding area were inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous peoples who preceded the Tacatacuru.  The Tacatacuru occupied Cumberland Island and the adjacent coastal areas of mainland Georgia. Their main village was located towards the southern end of the island. Spanish records indicate there were at least seven other villages on the island and eleven more on the mainland.

Long-term survival is not just a game played by animals against the environment but also one played against themselves (14;Gamble 1994: 79).


(Ice House Museum; Cumberland Island.)

Diagnostic pottery recovered from the midden deposits indicate prehistoric occupations beginning sometime during the Archaic period (22 00 b.c.) through the Mississippian period (1500 a.d.). (5)  Shell rings have yielded worked artifacts of ceramics, organic remains, and rock. Lithics are least common and include objects such as flaked stone tools and hammerstones. The organic artifacts were manufactured from three types of raw materials: bone, deer antler, and shell. The ceramics are typically tempered with sand or fibers, and may be modeled, molded, or coiled. Finger pinching is the most common ceramic decoration. (11)


(Northeast tip of Amelia Island, Florida.)

With the onset of a slow sea level rise some 6,000 years ago, coastal environments began to develop in parts of the southeastern United States, but the earliest records of their use have been lost due to the continuing rise of the sea. (9)

In June, 1970, an extensive shell midden area with Spanish and historic Indian ceramics was found. It seemed likely that this was the site of the Timucuan village of Tacatacuru. The center of the site is 3.6 miles from the NW tip of Amelia Island. The shell midden runs almost a mile along the island’s edge with its south end on the Old Thomas Carnegie family estate of Dungeness. (4; Florida Historic Society)


Fossil shark teeth are found along the northern end of Amelia Island especially after the Intercoastal Waterway is dredged.  Because shark skeletons are cartilage, all we find for fossils are the teeth.  The rule of thumb is 10′ of fish per inch of tooth, meaning Megalodons could have exceeded 70′ in length.  A modern day Great White shark rarely reaches a length greater than 22′.

Three ceremonial shell rings, dating back 1750 B.C., have been found on Skidaway Island near Savannah, Georgia. They are protected in a gated community on a golf course. Along with fossil mastodons, mammoths, giant sloths, and native horses, which became extinct, there have been 56 ancient Timucua Indian sites found on the island as well. The Timucua were targets of mission activities by the Spanish in the 1630s, and became extinct by the 1760s from European plagues and English-sponsored slaving.


In April, Dan Grissette of Altamaha Coastal Tours led me through an ancient tidal forest on Cathead Creek which is the last tributary of the Altamaha River in Georgia.  His love for the ancient trees only added to the intrigue of the area for me.

The largest collection of tree-ring dated bald cypress wood in the world is maintained at the  University of Arkansas Tree-Ring Laboratory –this includes the exactly dated samples from the Beidler Forest Sanctuary, South Carolina, and Black River, North Carolina, the two sites with the oldest known living baldcypress trees. Annual growth rings present an excellent opportunity for the development of millennia-long tree-chronologies during the late Pleistocene.

All living creatures require matter and energy to build themselves and maintain themselves and then to reproduce themselves.  Since plants live in some kind of environment–they are a reflection of (map of) the environment in which they evolved.(15; Gilsen)

Archives are being created from core samples which are extracted from living trees and cross-sections cut from dead logs that provide reconstruction of past climate and stream flow, the socioeconomic impacts of past climatic extremes, the dating of historic structures, and the identification and mapping of ancient forests.

Bald cypress tree-ring chronologies from southeastern Virginia indicate that Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony of Roanoke Island, the first English settlement in the New World, disappeared during the most extreme drought in 800 years (1587-1589), and that the heavy mortality and near abandonment of Jamestown Colony, the first successful English settlement in America, occurred during the driest seven-year period in 770 years…(1)


While staying in Darien, Georgia, I was fortunate to stop in to find this Guale dugout canoe at the Altamaha River Trading Co. at Mudcat Charlie’s.  Dugouts are the oldest boats archaeologists have found, dating back about eight thousand years. Some dug-out canoes, like the ones found in Einbaum, Germany date back to the Stone Age. (3)


The Guale Indians had several settlements on nearby Sapelo Island.  I took a ferry from Darien and rented a bike to tour the ruins, an ancient shell ring site in particular, located in the R.J. Reynolds Wildlife Refuge (pictured).  Archaeologists have found pottery shards on the island that date back 4,500 years, making some of the oldest artifacts ever found in North America.

Shell middens , or rings, are not only found on the coast of Georgia, but South Carolina, and Florida as well. There have only been approximately 20 sites discovered and all but one are in the southeastern United States, the other is in Ecuador. They are circular and semicircular deposits of shell, bone, soil, and artifacts. The construction of shell rings, or midden, is believed to symbolize the conversion of nomadic hunter-gatherers to coastal fisher folk and is considered a pivotal stage in the evolution of preEuropean contact culture in the United States. (7)

Whether the shell rings developed incidentally from shells discarded around circular villages, or were intentionally built is still unknown. Some shell rings on Sapelo Island had houses on the crest of the rings suggesting residential use verses ceremonial use. Although the circular shape may imply an egalitarian society, asymmetry in a ring may represent occupation by a non-egalitarian society as well. Open rings are often the highest and widest at the point opposite the opening. High status members of the community would have their houses on the highest point of the ring. When comparing different shapes and sized of the rings from South Carolina to Florida, Mike Russo, an archaeologist with the National Park Service, interprets the differences to having to accommodate larger and more complex (less egalitarian) communities. (13)


(A shell recycling center just outside of Darien, Georgia, today.)

Recent investigations suggest that the shell ring sites were arced habitation sites with rings gradually developing from kitchen refuse. But there are still unanswered questions about the ring functions.   Postholes are evidence of built structures and pits are common in the shell ring sites. Two different pits have been identified with one being used for roasting (ashes) and one that most likely was used for steaming food(preserved charcoal). Other pits seemed to be used for underground storage. Some scattered human remains have been found at some South Carolina sites, but human burial pits have not been substantiated. (10)

It has been the geometry of the ancient shell rings that have attracted archaeologists. Some North American archaeologists doubt the true ringed nature of Ecuador location(10). Since the Columbian site dates from several hundred years before the North American occurances (11), the time difference has been used to suggest the northward transfer of culture, through Caribbean and Atlantic waters, long before the time of Columbus (12).  Even if the Columbian site is a true shell ring, the archaeologists still suggest that the rings in the two Americas represent convergence in behavior, among unrelated peoples, when faced with the needs of life in the coastal zone.

While shell rings contain some of the earliest pottery found in North America, the earlier rings were actually built hundreds of years before pottery was adopted in the region (16).  The nature of the rings suggests that inhabitants successfully harvested natural resources which allowed nomadic bands to eventually settle at permanent locations.  Differences in social organization may be responsible for the difference in approaches to ring building.  Social identity, population size, and exploitable resource area likely impacted distribution, density, and layout of ring sites.

Archaeological sites are only the fragmented remains of human activities that reflect an overall adaptive strategy of resource exploitation and control.  Data gets destroyed in time by human actions and the archaeological records are imperfect and the measures are imprecise.  Stone tools are often the only material remains found when dealing with extinct societies that left no written records.

Related Posts

  1. Kayaking With Altamaha Coastal Tours: Ancient Tidal Forest to Ocean Renewables
  2. Kayaking Georgia’s Coast:  Tidal Flat Ecosystems, Ancient History, and Stewardship


1. Ancient Baldcypress Forests Buried in South Carolina, David W. Stahle, R. Daniel Griffin, Malcolm K. Cleveland, and Falko K. Fye; U of Arkansas Tree-Ring Laboratory, 2/11/05.

2. Vast St. Simons Island Property in Georgia to Become Nature Preserve, Katherine bulter, 1/6/11.

3. Dugout Boats; Wikipedia.

4. The Florida Historic Quarterly, “Tacatacuru and the San Pedro de Mocamo Mission,” by Jerald T. Milanach; Vol. 50. #3, Jan. 1972, pp. 253-291; Florida Historic Society.

5. DAR Digital Archaeological Record: Shell Ring.

6. Coastal Shell Rings, New Georgia Encyclopedia.

7. Richard F. Dame, “Shifting Through Time: Oysters and Shell Rings Past and Present Southeastern Estuaries;” Journal of Shellfish Research, August 2009.

8. David R. Lawrence and Hilda L. Wrightson, “Latge Archaic-Early Woodland Period Shell Rings of Southeastern United States Coast: A Bibliographic Introduction.” University of South Carolina Scholar Commons; 8/1/89.

9. Donald J. Colquhoun, “Location of Archaeological Sites with Respect to Sea Level in the Southeastern United States.” 1981; STRIAE 14:144-50.

10. Michael B. Trinkley, “Speculations on the Early Woodland Period Along the South Carolina Coast.” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Arthropology, Univerisyt of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

11. Thomas E. Hemmings, “Emmergence of Formative Life on the Atlantic Coast of the Southeast.” 1970; South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina, Columbia. Research Manuscript Series No. 7.

12. James A. Ford, “A Comparison of Formative Cultures in the Americas: Diffusion or the Psychic Unity of Man.” 1969; Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology 11.

13. Wikipedia: Shell Ring

14.  Clive Gamble, “Timewalkers:  The Prehistory of Global Colonization.”  Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.  1994.

15.  Dr. Leland Gilsen, “Oregon Ecology,” 4/24/12.

16.  Michael Russo, Notes on S. Carolina Shell Rings, 1991; Russo and Rebecca Saunders 1999.


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