GILPIN POINT, Abaco -- On a beautiful ocean beach just south of the Crossing Rocks settlement lies a complex prehistoric site unlike anything else discovered in the Bahamas.
Steadman, along with landowner Perry Maillis, Nancy Albury of the Antiquties Corporation, and others recently published a paper on this special site in the scientific journal Holocene. It is titled Faunal and Landscape Change in the Bahamas.
The paper describes a bone-rich peat deposit radiocarbon-dated to about 900 years ago that is exposed today only for brief periods at very low tide. The deposits and the bones they contain represent a vertebrate community at the time of first human presence in the Bahamas, and only 10 of the 17 identified species of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals still live on Abaco.
“We think the peat was laid in a freshwater estuarine system when the coast was further out,” Steadman said. “There are buttonwood stumps, which are freshwater mangroves, in upright growth position, so the sea level had to be lower and rising sea levels killed off the buttonwood.
“We also found extinct tortoise shells with crocodile bite marks like those found in the Sawmill Sink blue hole, as well as lots of sea turtle bones with bite marks. Some shells are burned on the outside with teeth marks on the inside, indicating that humans butchered and feasted on the turtles and then crocodiles scavenged the remains."
Lucayan Indians arrived on Abaco about 900 years ago, which is the estimated age of the peat deposits. Although there have been written references to ‘serpents' and crocodiles in the Bahamas since Columbus, Gilpin Point provides the first physical evidence that crocodiles and humans co-existed on the islands. Among the finds in the peat was a polished Lucayan shell bead.
Human involvement in deposition of bones at Gilpin Point is supported by the dense, midden-like concentration of large bones (crocodile, green turtle, and tortoise) in the peat, and the fact that some bones of both the green turtle and Abaco tortoise are charred.
"Our failure to find any pottery or rich shell midden at Gilpin Point might be due to inadequate sampling,” the researchers noted in their paper. “If the site extends inland beneath the beach ridge (which seems likely), then the peaty sediment that we have observed would represent less than 1 per cent of the entire site."
The fact that many of the animals whose remains were found in the peat no longer live on Abaco should be cause for concern, according to Steadman. “It shows that even prehistoric people with simple tools and weapons can have a significant effect on the environment. We don’t want to lose more than a third of our fauna over just 900 years. That puts our current environment in better perspective - knowing that we have already lost a lot.”
Sea level when the peat deposits were formed was about eight inches lower globally, Steadman said, but probably lower locally, and the current beach was the landward side of a lagoon.
The Gilpin Point site was discovered by Sabrina Bethel and Perry Maillis in 2009, during a very low spring tide. The dark, peaty sediment is inundated today by the ocean under normal circumstances, as well as being covered by sand.
"A challenge now is to search the beaches of Abaco’s windward side to begin to learn whether the Gilpin Point site is truly unique or merely represents a more common situation that heretofore has been overlooked,” the journal paper concluded.