What's Hidden in a Midden?

Man's interaction with the sea began (as I like to say) the moment the first human set foot on the an ancient shore. Where this occurred can only be a matter of speculation (until such time that time-travel is perfected) but anthropologists propose that it first happened somewhere in Africa. There is a great body of scientific evidence to support the hypothesis that humans evolved from primates in Africa, recently substantiated by advances in molecular biology (a new field of science called molecular paleoanthropology). But just so I don't lose the more sensitive members of our congregation who feel uncomfortable with this talk of evolution, let me attempt to appease you with this paragraph from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS):

Opinion polls show that many people believe that divine intervention actively guided the evolution of human beings. Science cannot comment on the role that supernatural forces might play in human affairs. But scientific investigations have concluded that the same forces responsible for the evolution of all other life forms on Earth can account for the evolution of human beings. [See Science and Creationism]

primitivessm.jpg (7726 bytes)Although the NAS web site does not mention anything about the first human beachcombers, it's probably a reasonable guess that an African shore was the first to be imprinted with human (Homo sp.) footprints some 2.4 or so million years ago. Sometime during that first walk on the beach (which is what really concerns us here), someone surely noticed that the sea was rich with food and other enticing resources.

Anthropological accounts tell us that the first humans were gatherers and hunters. The seashore is ideal for this type of activity. There's lots of sand for putting out fires, seawater for obtaining salt and, of course, lots of vitamin-rich seafoods, especially the seaweeds (macroalgae) and molluscs (shells, bivalves, octopus).

Now in this tale of man's first days on the beach that I'm weaving here, I can just imagine that first encounter: Fred picks up a piece of seaweed. Takes his first bite. Yuck! But might taste good with rice. Spots a sea gull (yes, they were around back then). Sea gull drops a shell on the rocks and ferrets out the fleshy contents. "Hey, that's a good idea," says Wilma, who throws a rock at Fred, hitting him on the head. She tells him to give it a try. Fred rips a black mussel from the rocks and whacks it a good one. The orange and purple flesh ooze out. Fred takes a bite. "Hey, not bad. Could use a little cocktail sauce."

So began a long and delightful partnership with molluscs, a liaison that continues to this very day and from which many seaside cities, like Oysterville and Mussel Beach (j/k), made their riches. And the shell collecting wasn't limited to food. Fred found it a cheap way to find presents for Wilma's birthday and, of course, their anniversary. Shells made great necklaces and pieces of shells could be embedded in wood to make even cooler looking things. Thus, a cottage industry to the molluscan food industry was born: molluscan trinkets.

How do we know that our first ancestors delighted in sea shells? The same way you can tell what your neighbors are eating and drinking for dinner: by checking the trash barrel. Yes, should you have ambitions to become an anthropologist or paleontologist, rest assured that at some time in your career, you will spend some time digging through someone's trash.

Which brings me to the main topic of our first story here: middens.

Main Entry: midĚden
Pronunciation: 'mi-d&n
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English midding, of Scandinavian origin; akin to Old Norse myki dung & Old Norse dyngja manure pile -- more at DUNG
Date: 14th century
2 a : a refuse heap; especially : KITCHEN MIDDEN b : a small pile (as of seeds, bones, or leaves) gathered by a rodent (as a pack rat)

There's a lot of history to be told in middens, especially ones that accumulated over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And little lasts longer in a midden than the hard parts of many a sea creature. Consider this tray of appetizing midden-bound parts: the shells of mussels, oysters, clams, scallops, cowries (the world's first money!), conchs, coquinas, cockles, limpets, whelks, turbans, cone shells, not to mention the bones of fish, including shark's teeth, and the remains of sea-birds and yes, marine mammals (whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions) and, well, you get the idea.

Humans have been heaping up seafood remains probably since first order of oysters on the half. And once they got the taste for them innards (and recognizing a growing waste management problem with discarded shells), humans invented a whole lotta crazy uses for the shells themselves. Shells were used for weapons, armor, money, spiritual ceremonies, decoration, jewelry, toys, eating utensils, building materials and even foundations for their homes, to name a few.

moundkey.gif (18677 bytes)And that's where the middens come in. While searching through a midden may not seem like the most glamorous thing in the world, they do provide many clues to man's early relationship with the sea and its cultural and historical significance in their affairs. In searching through a shell midden, an archaeologist pays attention to the kinds of shells, where they were found and the fine details of their condition, often performing microscopic or chemical analysis. From these examinations, archaeologists can infer how people used the items, the value they placed on them, how they prepared them, where the collected them and sometimes, what the general climate was like in the locations where the shells were growing. Taking all these things together, archaeologists can piece together a pretty good picture of the every day life of these people.

One of the most outstanding middens in the world is not a waste pile, but a shell island. The Shell Indians, inhabitants of southwest Florida some 12,000 years ago, actually used shells to build their own island, known in modern times as Mound Key (shown above at left). The methods and materials used to construct this site are truly remarkable.

Here's a few paragraphs on the Shell Indians from the Conchologists of America web site:

Mound Key is an entirely artificial construction, built up from shallow sea bottom by the hands of men whose only building material was shell and marl. Like other shell middens, much of Mound Key is composed of discarded shells the Calusas used for tools, ornament and weapons, and the empty shells accumulating from the shelled mollusks they ate. But the Calusa mounds were of an intentional and purposeful construction in the beginning. Where shifting sand is moved about by every tide, a stable construction required some ingenuity. These industrious people constructed the first layer of an island or land mass by driving shells, usually whelks and conchs, siphonal canals down, into a sandy or muddy shallows. Next they carried in loads of clay-like marl which they then packed closely around these foundation shells. As the marl dried and settled, it hardened over time into a cement which held the entire structure together.

More marl and soil raised the level of the land, and as time passed, soil accumulated from the refuse, leaf litter and twigs that fell to the ground. Seawalls were constructed of whelk shells, siphonal canals driven in semi-horizontally, spires outward, with marl packed around them. Some mounds had altar-like platforms which were faced with large whelk shells, their spires forming a mosaic pattern. Smaller platforms and their approaches were paved with large clam shells, convex side up. Shells were used to build elaborate series of embankments, canals accessible by canoes, and water courts.

These water courts may have been stocked with fish. Archaeologists are finding evidence (tiny fish bones in quantity) that fish was a more important component of their protein diet than was formerly believed. In 1895, the first anthropologist to examine these structures, Frank Hamilton Cushing, watched a large school of fish pursued by sharks and porpoises, swim into these man-made shoals, where hundreds of pelicans, herons and cormorants and other predators were waiting. The fish were attacked from above, below and the sides. This sight led Cushing to the conclusion that men may once have driven fish into these traps and speared or netted them.

Abundant shell artifacts are found in the mound areas. Hundreds of Busycon whelk hammers and picks have been unearthed, as well as shell pendants, necklaces, scrapers, dippers, awls, fishing sinkers and weapons of all descriptions. Fishnet mesh was made of palm fiber using spacers of shell. Sometimes bone and shell were worked into a composite artifact, like fish hooks, or axes and hammers composed of whelk shells with wooden handles affixed by rawhide lashing. The Fighting Conchs, Strombus alatus and pugilis, and Melongena corona, the Kings Crown shells, also served as hammers and assorted tools. Bivalves such as the Mercenaria mercenaria, Quahog Clam, were used as anvils, choppers, knives, scrapers, and even weights for nets. The whelks too, Busycon contrarium, came in for such uses, as well as spinning tools, sinkers, anchors, cutting tools and beads. The columella of whelks of various sizes had many uses, as awls, Strombus gigas, the Queen Conch, and Cassis species, the Helmet Shells, were used as hammers to knock apart oyster clusters and pulverize shell or food. The Sunray Venus, Macrocallista nimbosa, as well as being one of the most delicious of clams, was used, as was the more plentiful and mundane Surf Clam, Spisula solidissima, as knives and scrapers. Perforated bivalves of all descriptions could be used as net weights and decoration. Those found as artifacts include Codakia orbicularis, Crassostrea virginica, Mercenaria campechiensis, Argopecten irradians, Noetia ponderosa and Dinocardium robustum vanhyningi. Busycon and Cypraea zebra, the Measled Cowry, were used as spoons, scoops, or dippers.

As a native-born Floridian, this account really strikes home. Many of the above-described shells I collected and/or ate (the animal, not the shell) as a kid!

Here in California, middens also abound. You have probably walked over a midden somewhere and not even realized it. After all, they just look like shell heaps. But the archaeological information they may contain makes them valuable sites nonetheless.

emeryshellsm.jpg (2266 bytes)One of the largest and earliest middens to be studied in California was located in Emeryville, California. The Emeryville midden image linked here aptly illustrates the sad history of these valuable treasures. Their ultimate fate is often obliteration through bulldozing. Many middens go completely unrecognized by virtue of the fact that people aren't aware of them or that they consider them to be waste piles anyway. Yet as we learn about the importance of these structures for understanding the early cultural history of the United States, their preservation, hopefully, will be better appreciated.

Notwithstanding its ultimate destruction, the shell midden at Emeryville provided many important insights into the early cultural history of California and continues to yield data. The most recent work offers evidence of prehistoric brain surgery, information on past climate fluctuations and analyses of local vertebrate ecology. You may find more information about that history from Nels. C. Nelson's Final Report on the Excavation of the Emeryville Shellmound, published in 1906, as transcribed by Jack M. Broughton at the University of California Archaeological Research Facility in Berkeley.

Here's a paragraph reproduced here:

Even though the present location of the long-since leveled mound now sadly serves, in part, as a toxic waste dump for a Sherwin-Williams paint factory, research on the Emeryville collections continues unabated. In ongoing analyses of the human remains from Emeryville, G. Richards (in press) has revealed an unprecedented case of prehistoric cranial surgery in North America. L. Ingram and B. Berry are currently investigating late Holocene climatic fluctuations from strontium isotope ratios obtained from Emeryville shell samples as well as radiocarbon reservoir effects from charcoal and shell samples. I recently conducted a stratigraphic analysis of the vertebrate materials collected from the site. That analysis documented that the inhabitants of Emeryville had substantial impacts on local vertebrate populations (Broughton 1995).

More than 100 years has elapsed since Nels. C. Nelson made his first careful excavations and descriptions of this midden. That researchers continue to gain new information from his observations is a testament to the scientific rigor with which he approached his work and a statement on the pace of scientific progress!

As you journey in California and elsewhere in the world, take a few moments to consider how the cultures you encounter might be identified by their solid waste. Day-by-day, humans generate tons of garbage that gets piled in landfills. As those landfills reach their capacity and as sites for new landfills dwindle, waste management officials are looking to the oceans for dumping solid waste. What might that reveal about present day humans 10,000 years from now?

For more information on early uses of ocean resources, check out these links:

Excavation of the Emeryville Shellmound, 1906, Nels. C. Nelson's Final Report

The Shell Indians of Southwest Florida

And if all this talk about shell middens has made you hungry, check out an oyster farm that lets you order farm-fresh oysters online:

J.J. Brenner Oyster Company, Olympia, WA