Florida’s Little Salt Lake rich in life and history

As we dove into the upper section of the lake, which at around 40 feet would be all we’d see of it, each of us gawked at the giant cavity from behind our masks. Here, in the soupy, sepia-green lake water, what little light remained seemed to be sucked in by the crater, and even algae did not grow near it. This, of course, due to photosynthetic restraints, but it looked much more sinister.
With the lake basin sloping heavily toward the hole, it was at first dizzying to maintain a sense of place. This was certainly not like the oceanic diving I was used to, with rhythmic waves and lively, moving colors. Leading to somewhere deep and unknown far below the visible ground, and with buried cargo that would prickle my skin on land, the hole in the middle of Little Salt Spring was, in a word, freaky.
I first learned about Little Salt Spring, located in west-central Florida, a semester earlier, while researching limestone holes for a geology lab assignment.
Florida has problems with its karst topography. Because of chemical dissolution, the ground actually caves in. I do not know, however, which came first at Little Salt, the lake or the colossal cavern under it. In any case, when glaciation lowered water levels, earlier people lived on a 26-meter ledge about halfway below its present surface. This happened twice, around time-period medians 10,500 and 6,000 years ago, but subsequent rises in water levels cleared the people out.
These Ice Ages froze up so much water that Miami would be as far inland as Orlando today. Artifacts from the separate groups have yielded various wooden tools, which would otherwise be dust by now; but Little Salt’s waters prevented most of the breakdown.
Perhaps the most astounding facet of the lake is its human remains. Over one thousand bodies are buried in its 200-foot deep waters, carefully interred and yet to be excavated, if ever. So far, the most sizzling of discoveries is a 6,000-year-old skull, with brain tissue intact.
Through the scientific diving techniques course (MSC 201), my classmates and I dove into the lake, employing the skills we had been practicing. Sadly, we also learned about the carelessness of earlier explorers, who lost significant reliquary data and samples.
Today the site, especially its water quality, is imperiled by urbanization (e.g., Naples and Tampa lie to the north).
Considering its immense archaeological data, and despite being a 1979 Science cover story, it has little household-familiarity compared to the Miami Circle. While the headlining Tequesta site is, at most, 2,000 years old, even the youngest residents of Little Salt were there more than 4,00 years earlier. So there is some desire to develop it for public education.
Little Salt Lake is a kind of fountain of youth. But rather than bless bathers with eternal vitality, it offers quiet safekeeping. Like Silverstein’s Giving Tree, it gives sustenance. First, it provided water and shelter to earlier cultures.
Secondly, the lake’s anoxic water chemistry kept these people’s remains and artifacts from deterioration.
Third and lastly, Little Salt Lake is a source of continual mystery, representing one example of UM’s exclusive and innovative research possibilities.
Moreover, Little Salt is the palpable reality of the beautiful, delicate mysteries remaining in our peninsular state, and, truly, much remains to be understood.

January 22, 2002


The Miami Hurricane

Student newspaper at the University of Miami

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The Miami Hurricane is the student newspaper of the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. The newspaper is edited and produced by undergraduate students at UM and is published weekly in print on Tuesdays during the regular academic year.