After the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Irma in September 2017, photographer Randy “Shots” Lathrop was riding his push bike on the banks of the Indian River Lagoon, near the Florida city of Cocoa. Piles of driftwood and debris were heaped along the banks. But then Lathrop spotted something that wasn’t just a battered old tree trunk – it was most certainly a man-made object.
After causing destruction throughout the Caribbean back in 2017, Hurricane Irma had then approached the coast of Florida. State governor Rick Scott subsequently announced a state of emergency on September 4. Residents were advised to ensure they had adequate food supplies and to prepare their homes for the impact of the powerful storm.
By the time the storm hit Florida’s Cudjoe Key on September 10 it was a category 4 hurricane, and it spent a day blowing across the state before heading north into Georgia. Some 6.5 million souls were forced to evacuate their homes.
The numbers give a stark idea of the sheer scale of destruction. At least 65,000 buildings sustained damage, farming took a $2.5 billion hit, and the overall bill for Florida was a minimum of $50 billion. Most horrifying of all, 84 people died in the storm.
But the storm had died down in Florida by September 11, at least where Lathrop was taking his bike ride along the shore of Indian River Lagoon. And what he spotted on the bank was a canoe, its hull hewn from a single piece of wood. Although Lathrop is no expert, he was nonetheless sure that the object wasn’t modern.
Lathrop realized he’d stumbled across something with great potential significance and immediately contacted a friend who happened to be an archaeologist. “I didn’t believe it. I was shocked,” Lathrop told NBC News. “I was happy because it made perfect sense to me that it would end up here.”
“Any time we have any kind of a storm, certain parts of our coastline are just swarming with [people carrying] metal detectors, because they understand that items wash ashore after hurricanes,” Lathrop explained. But he had chanced upon his find through sheer luck.
And as chance would have it, Lathrop is a self-confessed history buff. “As soon as I saw it, I knew exactly what it was,” he told ABC News. “My main concern was to secure it from harm’s way. I was able to go half a mile away and get my friend with a truck, and we struggled to get [it] into the back of the truck.”
“It weighs almost 700 pounds,” Lathrop pointed out. “But to me, it might as well have weighed 1,000 pounds. It’s been water soaked for years.” The 15-foot vessel, which has come to be known as the “Cocoa canoe,” was taken to a freshwater pond so that it didn’t deteriorate after leaving its watery grave in the Indian River Lagoon.
The next stage of conservation was to move the canoe to a specialist laboratory in Tallahassee. There algae and salt would be carefully taken from the surface, before the canoe would be immersed in a tank of polyethylene glycol for 12 months. This chemical would act as a preservative and would also stop the timber from shrinking or swelling.
In fact, Florida is a particularly rich source of ancient canoes of widely varying ages. More prehistoric canoes have been uncovered in the state – some 200 – than anywhere else in the U.S. Some Florida canoes, or log boats as they’re sometimes called, come from the Middle Archaic Period. That means they’re between 6,000 and 7,000 years old.
Canoes from other periods have also been discovered in the state, so as well those made by Native Americans there are some that were built by Europeans. But whoever made the vessel, they’re owned by the state if they’re discovered on Florida-owned land – including rivers and estuaries.
Speaking to Florida Today, the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research’s Julie Duggins said, “It’s just by nature pretty thrilling to Floridians to learn about something like boats, boat-making, this tradition that goes back thousands of years. We’ve got the highest concentration of dugout canoes in the world here.”
And work to determine the age of the canoe with carbon dating was now able to start. In October 2017 the results of the tests, which had been carried out at the University of Georgia Center for Applied Isotope Studies, were revealed. One of the researchers there is Carla Hadden, who told Florida Today, “I was lucky enough to get a sample of that canoe, and I was really excited because I grew up in Florida.”
“When we got the results, I knew it was going to be kind of interesting to explain because rather than being able to say, ‘Oh this dates to exactly this year A.D.,’ we ended up with three discreet possible ranges,” Hadden continued. “So it kind of added to the mystery of how old this canoe was rather than giving a definitive answer.”
And the range of dates was indeed wide. The furthest back the canoe might have been constructed is from 1640 to 1680 – there’s a 50 percent chance that is the case. Then there’s a 32 percent probability that the canoe dates from 1760 to 1818. Finally, there’s a slimmer chance – 8.6 percent – that the vessel might date from as recently as post-1930.
Commenting on this range of dates to Florida Today, Florida Department of State spokeswoman Sarah Revell said, “It is important to note that this gives us the probability of when the log used to make the canoe died or was cut down.” So this might mean that the canoe was made relatively recently but used a tree trunk that pre-dated the time of construction.
Researchers also attempted to use dendrochronology, the science of tree rings, to date the canoe, but there wasn’t sufficient data for this method to be feasible. Nonetheless, Laura Smith of the University of Tennessee’s Laboratory of Tree Ring Science pointed out another intriguing feature of the boat. “One of the issues with the Irma Canoe is that it’s Red Cedar, which is quite unusual,” she told Florida Today. “I guess this is the only canoe in the state of Florida that they recorded of this species.”
Lathrop himself was delighted to hear that the canoe he discovered might be as old as 400 years. “I didn’t think it’d be that old. I’m no expert, but I was placing it somewhere in the middle-1800s, frankly,” he said. “I was surprised. And it was good news.”
So we can’t currently be sure about the precise dates of this historical canoe, but if you happen to be in Florida, you can go and see it at Cape Canaveral City Hall. And as Cape Canaveral cultural programs manager Molly Thomas said, “Even though we don’t know exactly who made it and when they made it now, it’s only a matter of time before the technology catches up. That’s part of the reason we’re excited to have it and keep it safe.”