Evidence of the earliest known people in Georgia can be found on Sapelo Island in the form of the Sapelo Shell Ring Complex. Shell rings are also known as middens. Three separate doughnut-shaped mounds rise up to 20 feet above the tide line. Formed from oyster, clam, mussel, and conch shells, the largest ring is nearly 255 feet in diameter.
As landmarks go, they’re almost imperceptible, blending harmoniously into the surrounding maritime forest. But these ancient trash piles are keys to understanding early habitation on the Sea Islands. They’ve been documented in South Carolina and Florida, as well. Carbon dating has placed their construction beginning around 2170 BC, but their massive size is the result of successive generations of Late Archaic people.
While it was initially believed that the rings were built all at once, like later Mississippian mounds, present research indicates that they were never intended to be monumental structures but simply grew as people discarded trash behind their circular villages. These early settlers likely understood that they afforded protection to their villages as they grew in size.
Due to the incursion of the maritime forest, it’s difficult to envision these mounds as separate monuments but it’s obvious that they created a new topography. Research is ongoing.