It's a great pleasure to have another guest write by Randy Godwin. Randy has contributed several excellent fiction stories on the history pages in the past, but this is his first non-fiction piece on the website and what an article it is. An award-winning one, in fact, on Georgia's enigmatic "Carolina Bays".
Although officially still a mystery as to how these "bays" came to be, the evidence is more and more tending to show that a comet, or rather, fragments of one, struck the Canadian Cordilleran Ice Sheet around 12,800 years ago, with other pieces striking the Americas elsewhere, in a NW to SE leaning-direction, and even hitting or air-bursting in Europe and the Middle East. This catastrophe caused mass flooding, raging fires, and brought on the Younger Dryas epoch that saw 35 large American mammal genera disappear. As of 2015, enough new evidence has accumulated to make the comet theory look like the most likely answer as to how the "bays" came to be. But their origins and what caused them are still being debated and thus still considered unknown and mysterious.
The southeastern part of Georgia contains many shallow swamps. At first glance these exotic morasses seem scattered randomly throughout the countryside, but an aerial view of these wetlands gives a different picture. Besides the natural wetlands, including streams, rivers, and natural lakes and ponds, there are obvious lowlands with near perfect circular or oval shapes.
These mysterious “Carolina Bays,” are so called because of the propensity of bay trees to grow in these swampy depressions, and for the great number of them found in North and South Carolina. But what caused these remarkable wetlands to form in such obviously unnatural shapes? These bays range in shape from almost circular in the southern Georgia area, to teardrop shaped at their northernmost point in Delaware.
Until man first took flight over the area the swamps were considered natural, but a look from above seemed to suggest otherwise. There are several theories about the formation of the Carolina Bays with some being favored over others as we learn more about them. However, the theories are all interesting with different causes for these biologically and historically diverse ecosystems.
Early Hunters and Georgia's Bays
Long before De Soto’s Spanish exploration of Georgia the Carolina Bays were important to both animals, and much later, human inhabitants. These sources of both food and water helped break the monotony of the vast pine forests which covered much of Georgia. The bays were scattered oases of life with water as the main offering.
Besides being watering holes, they were also places where fish and waterfowl could be found, where alligators and turtles plied the water, where animals came to drink. This is evidenced by the many stone and flint artifacts found along the perimeter of these ancient hunting grounds.
In some cases, the Georgia Bays were used as traps by these first Native Americans. Lacking any canyons or cliffs to entrap the prey these bays were used as barriers to prevent the game from eluding the hunters.
Large alligators and thick cypress forests hindered easy travel or prevented an escape route for the hapless prey. Projectile points from many different cultures and eras are all represented among the artifacts found around the bays.
When this part of the country was first settled the bays became important as rich farmland when drained. Some of the bays were natural ponds which became used as reservoirs used to run mills for grinding corn into grits and cornmeal. Others were used to run sawmills and to furnish fish and game for the increasing population.
There are over half a million of these Carolina Bays along the Atlantic Seaboard. Some of these Bays cover huge areas in the state of Georgia. Others are merely small circular depressions in now drained farmland.
Until man achieved flight these bays were thought to be ancient lakes and lime sinks left behind when the Atlantic ocean retreated during the last ice age.But when the full picture of the quantity and orientation of these mysterious sand rimmed depressions emerged, it caused scientists to rethink their theories on the origins of the Carolina bays..
There was too much of a pattern for the bays to have formed naturally. Plus, the axis of the bays all pointed in the same direction, merging with another string of bays originating in the Texas area.
When the paths of these bays merge they end up in the Great Lakes area. This may end up being a very important clue to the origin of the mysterious bays. The bays were once thought to be meteor impacts, but they were too shallow and no stony or iron material was found in the craters to indicate this to be the case.
Some scientists believe a comet impacted in the Great Lakes region, perhaps when 2 mile thick glaciers covered the earth. These researchers suspect the Carolina Bays may be ejecta sprayed by such an impact on the ice field. How such a scenario may have caused the bays to form is an ongoing discussion among protagonists of this theory.
Ice Age Winds Or Comet Strike?
The geologists thought them to be simply low areas of water, shaped by the prevailing winds into their round or oval shapes, depending on where they were located along the eastern seaboard . The sandy, slightly elevated, rims of the Carolina Bays seemed to be a bit higher on the end towards that which the prevailing winds would be blowing.
But this explanation didn’t totally satisfy everyone. The meteor or comet crowd and the geological phenomenon crowd went back and forth for many years with nothing new to settle the matter. But perhaps we will find out soon because new techniques are being used to research these strange swamps.
[They are at that. As this is being written at the end of 2015 the evidence from those new techniques, and, as one example, core samples from that sample-rich island of Greenland, is pointing towards a comet's fragments being the cause of the bays, or as Randy has just so rightly called those in the southern parts of Georgia, "strange swamps". ~ AP]
Because of the propensity of the Carolina Bays being swamp areas for the most part, those which haven’t been drained or altered by other means are excellent candidates for taking core samples.
Many Carolina Bays have thick layers of peat beneath the surface. Taking core samples from these intact bays tells quite a bit about the history and ecology of the site.
The types of plants which grew in the swamp, the climate of the area, and other fascinating information may be discovered with these core samples. But the range of dates taken from core samples vary depending on the climate experienced by the particular bay being examined. Using Carbon-14 dating methods the dates vary from 10,000 to 50,000 years old.
Because the bays may have gone through a dry period during its lifetime, the amount of organic material collected in the Carolina Bays will vary. Those having water in them for much of their existence tend to have more organic material on the bottom as is to be expected. But these bays seem to be many thousands of years old at the very least.
Plant and Animal Diversity in the Bays
Because of their unique environment, these bays host a large diversity of plants and animals. Some became large lakes filled with all sorts of fish, waterfowl, and wild creatures.
The famous Venus Flytrap carnivorous plant grows well in the Carolina Bays as well as pitcher plants. Alligators, bobcat, whitetail deer, and even black bears prowl the environs of these swampy mysterious bays.
Many of the Carolina Bays located in southern Georgia are home to migratory birds each winter. Wood stork, Sand hill cranes, Canada geese and other duck species find a perfect sanctuary from the northern winters in the snug isolated bays.
The Carolina Bays are also perfect for the production of the Bald Cypress tree. The wood from this species of tree is rot resistant and will last for many years even if exposed to the elements.
Hunters roam the bays looking for game and sport, and are awestruck by the beauty of the strange and peaceful bays.
But hunters are long acquainted with the bays, as evidenced by the tools and projectile points they left behind.
The Georgia Bays and Early Man
Those of us who love collecting Native American projectile points and artifacts have found the Carolina Bays are very productive if they have been drained for farmland. This author is lucky enough to have a small bay on his property which was apparently a very productive kill zone for many thousands of years.
On the perimeter, and inside the former bay itself, I have collected many hundreds of points and tools. Those found in the former water covered area of the bay were apparently animals which managed to escape the hunters.
These points seem to be well preserved as opposed to those found outside of the bay itself. Water was the major draw to these bays as the animals and hunters both required a place to drink.
The age of these projectile points run from a few hundred to over 13,000 years old. The Clovis culture is represented, as well as the Woodland and Archaic cultures. The points are made of flint and chert, materials which aren’t available in the immediate area.
The large amount of projectile points and chipped flakes found around this bay attest to its being very productive hunting grounds for thousands of years.
When the bays were first discovered to be regular in shape with similar orientation to the northwest/southeast, the first thought was of an extraterrestrial event such as an asteroid or meteor strike. Or perhaps a comet, such as struck Siberia near Tunguska at the turn of the century. But why were the impact craters so shallow with no trace of material left from the impacting objects?
Some geologists had their own ideas about the origin of the Carolina Bays. They theorized they were caused by ice age winds and indeed, the sandy raised rim, a feature of all bays, on the southeast end of the depression tends to be slightly higher. The prevailing winds were thought to have blown in this direction which tends to bear out this theory.
Since the 1920’s, these different theories have been thrown around in all directions with no true winner being declared as of yet. But new tests which claim to show nano-diamonds and carbon spherules present in the bays are creating quite a stir in the scientific community. These materials are usually only present in areas of meteorite or comet impaction.
Some have speculated the extinction of the woolly mammoth, along with other mega fauna, might have been caused by such an event. The Younger Dryas period, which coincided with the extinctions could have been caused by a comet or asteroid impact on the North American continent. Clovis man also disappeared at the same time, so the mystery deepens. Are these bays connected to this event? Only time will tell the tale.