Mysteries of Sugar Maples and Shell Middens

The earth will know you have been here.  That was the theme of a lecture last week hosted by the Charleston Natural History Society (aka our friends at Audubon who help with our bird counts.) The speaker was Patrick McMillan, an engaging naturalist from Clemson who has a regular SCETV program called Expeditions.

Dr. McMillan provided lots of compelling data about protecting earth’s fragile resources, which was very interesting, but the reason I went was that the lecture was about shell middens.  Shell middens (or mounds) are evidence of early complex hunter gatherer societies located worldwide, but I was particularly interested in those on the Southeast Coast.  I am still doing more research to learn about the people who constructed the middens.  One of the most accessible shell midden sites is located practically in our own backyard, at the edge of the Francis Marion National Forest, known as the Sewee shell midden.

Dr. McMillan explained that the choices of these ancient societies to pile up shells had created micro-ecosystems with much more calcified soils than the surrounding marshes, creating a favorable climate for some surprising botany.  Sugar Maples, for example, grew on the edges of some shell middens– a deciduous tree which favors upland soils.  And other woodland, upland species grow there as well, including a kind of trillium.  Scientists have recently discovered many more archaeologically significant sites by flying over the coast in the fall, locating previously unknown shell rings by spotting sugar maples in their glorious fall foliage.

The lecture was at the Library downtown, and at the end I had a whole bunch of questions.  Sadly, however, the library closes as 8:00 and then they lock the parking lot, and so I needed to scramble to keep my car from spending the night under the library.  I will send Dr. McMillan a letter (and do some research) to learn more about the following things:

What else do we know about shell middens?  Were the seeds from sugar maples and other calcium loving species carried there by the wind or by people for deliberate propagation?  One of the trees mentioned is the toothache tree– is that not a native tree for our island?  Were our toothache trees brought here from elsewhere thousands of years ago?  What did they learn from the newly discovered archaeological sites?  What do we have in our archives and nature center from that time period?  I’ll keep you posted.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Reggie Fairchild

    How many shell middens are thought to exist in South Carolina?

    How big is the biggest one? Are they taller or wider?

    Were they started atop hummocks in the marsh? Or are they the hummocks?

    Note: my online dictionary says, a hummock is a tract of forested land that rises above an adjacent marsh in the southern United States.

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