In today’s Palm Beach, surviving the social season with one’s status intact or enhanced is paramount.
For thousands of years, the main goal on the land that became Palm Beach was simply survival.
The notion that no humans lived on the barrier island prior to American settlers in the late 1800s is not true, according to archaeologist Dorothy Block, a founder of the Palm Beach County Archaeological Society.
There are a number of Palm Beach sites — typically not identified publicly to prevent looting — that served as the living space and burial sites for people who arrived in the region several centuries ago.
“There are burial mounds all over the island,” Block told an audience recently during her talk on “Ancient Palm Beachers: 3,000 Years of Living the Good Life” at the West Palm Beach Library.
“We know from accounts by the Spanish at the time of contact that people who were living in Palm Beach were the Jeaga 'Indians,’ ” Block said. “They were a tribal group, which by definition means everyone else was related to everyone else either through kinship or marriage. Social organization there was egalitarian, and we certainly didn’t see the extreme social stratification that we see on the island today,” Block said, eliciting laughs from the crowd.
Among the artifacts that have informed archaeologists and anthropologists about these early tribes are fiber-tempered and sand-tempered pottery, human bones, and simple tools that employed shells, wood and stone.
The Jeaga’s territory stretched from Jupiter Inlet to Boca Raton, Block said.
Rather than surviving on deer, the Jeaga adapted to the coastal environment. Sea turtle was one food they obtained from the ocean.
“They ate a lot of oysters. This is how we know very often that we are in a native American site, when you found the oysters, you found the site,” Block said. “Not always, though.” They also used sharks and alligators for food and other uses, she said.
Burial mounds protected
The archaeologist, who works part-time as a waitress at Greene’s Pharmacy, said state law protects ancient burial mounds and unmarked graves. “So it’s important, especially if you live on the island, that you be familiar with these laws and what you should do if you are, for example, planting a geraniums in your yard and find human remains,” Block said.
The archaeologist advised people to contact the police if that circumstance arises.
Jane Day, Palm Beach’s preservation consultant, said the town’s building department can advise residents if they find other types of artifacts on their property. “(Planning Administrator) John (Lindgren) has a list of approved archaeologists to give out to people if something’s found,” Day said.
Archaeologist tested island site
When the Palm Beach County Club prepared late last fall to move its longtime caretaker cottage off its site, the approval for a new structure came with the condition that the private club hire an archaeologist to test the site, Day said. The age of what became known as the Stambaugh cottage and oral histories about it compelled the town to seek that condition, the preservation consultant said.
That report is not yet complete, Day said.
“The town recognizes that cultural artifacts are not just the buildings we see on the island, but there is a prehistoric component to the Palm Beach story that is worth protecting and documenting,” Day said.
For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.