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Is This Florida Island Home to a Long-Lost Native American Settlement?

Excavations on Big Talbot Island may have unearthed traces of Saraby, a 16th- or 17th-century Mocama community

To date, researchers have uncovered fragments of Spanish pottery, animal bones, oyster shells, jewelry beads and an array of other artifacts. (University of North Florida)
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Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a possible Indigenous settlement in northeast Florida.

As Matt Soergel reports for the Florida Times-Union, researchers from the University of North Florida (UNF) think they’ve finally found Sarabay, a local community cited by French and Spanish writers in records dating back to the 1560s. Its exact whereabouts had remained unknown—until now.

According to a statement, the team discovered a range of Indigenous and European artifacts on Big Talbot Island, located off the coast of Jacksonville. Coupled with cartographic map evidence, the finds suggest that the site once housed a group of Mocama Native Americans.

“No doubt we have a 16th-century Mocama community,” dig leader Keith Ashley tells the Times-Union.

The UNF archaeologist first suspected that he’d found Sarabay’s ruins in 1998, when he and his students began excavating Big Talbot. (Subsequent digs unearthed fish and animal bones, jewelry beads, and other apparent Indigenous artifacts, as Sky Lebron reported for WJCT News in 2019.) Now, Ashley is almost certain that the island hosted a Mocama settlement.

Highlights of the discovery include more than 50 pieces of early Spanish pottery, as well as Indigenous ceramics that date to the late 16th or early 17th century. The researchers also excavated bone, stone and shell artifacts and charred corn cob remains.

“This is not just some little camp area,” Ashley tells the Times-Union. “This is a major settlement, a major community.”

The dig is part of the UNF Archaeology Lab’s ongoing Mocama Archaeological Project, which seeks to shed light on the Indigenous people who lived along northern Florida’s coast prior to Europeans’ arrival in the region in 1562. As Soergel wrote for the Times-Union in 2009, the Mocama have long been considered part of the Timucua—a broader Indigenous network split into 35 chiefdoms—but recent scholarship suggests they formed a distinct group. (Mocama is a dialect of the Timucua language.)

Per the National Park Service (NPS), the Timucua lived in northeast and north central Florida from as early as 3000 B.C.; at its height, the civilization boasted a population of between 200,000 and 300,000.

The Mocama—whose name roughly translates to “the sea” or “the ocean”—were seafaring people who settled at the mouth of the St. Johns River, notes the Archaeology Lab’s website. They fished, hunted and gathered to sustain themselves.

“The Spanish would have considered it a miserable experience, eating oysters, roots, insects, snakes,” John Worth, a Timucua scholar at the University of West Florida, told the Times-Union’s Soergel for a separate 2009 article. “But if you take in the cultural context, they had a diverse and very healthy diet, … they were not overworked and, as far as we could tell, they had a very thriving society that lived in a good balance with their resources.”

Prior to European colonization, the bustling Mocama culture was part of a large trade network. Sarabay specifically had easy access to the Intracoastal Waterway, wrote Ashley and Robert L. Thunen for the Florida Anthropologist in 2008, and the settlement’s households were scattered across the southern third of Big Talbot. Then, the Spaniards arrived.

“May 1, 1562, the daily rhythm of Mocama life just halted then,” Ashley told the Times-Union’s Soergel last year. “The long-term impact of that was just going to be disastrous to the Mocama. They only had another 150 years left in northeast Florida. They just didn’t know it yet.”

As Tessa Solomon notes for ARTnews, the Mocama found themselves beset by warfare with settlers and other Indigenous tribes, infectious diseases, and other consequences of European colonization. Ultimately, the once-thriving group was divided between two major chiefdoms.

Per the statement, researchers plan to continue digging at Big Talbot over the next three years. They hope to find houses, buildings and other structures that might conclusively identify the site as Saraby’s location.

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