They’re Exotic & Closer Than You Think
My fascination with islands began with Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. The Scotchman’s novel took form when his stepson painted an imaginary island with watercolors on a cold, rainy summer day. Stevenson, looking on, began to imagine his tale. And so, from a boy’s map came Stevenson’s Treasure Island and the villainous Long John Silver who gave us the model of a pirate forevermore: a peg-leg Pete with a parrot perched on his shoulder.
Such is the power of islands. They fire up the imagination, leading us to wonder what mysteries might lie on those distant self-contained worlds.
All that mystery isn’t lost on Hollywood. Islands have long provided Hollywood and television raw material. Here are but a few: The Island of Doctor Moreau, “Fantasy Island,” “Gilligan’s Island,” and Papillon (Devil’s Island). And then there’s “Lost,” the recent TV series about the survivors of a commercial jet crash on a mysterious tropical island somewhere in the South Pacific.
We expect islands to be strange, exotic, and dangerous. In Lincoln County we are no strangers to islands. More than 100 islands dot the lake, freckles of land that seem ordinary. They don’t, for instance, nurture strange beasts or post signs warning you to keep away. Beyond the lake mystic islands are out there though, and they’re closer than you think.
As the Savannah River courses toward Augusta you’ll find Stallings Island in Columbia County. The island takes its name from the Stallings culture, a Late Archaic era of hunter-gatherers. The island sits eight miles upstream from Augusta in the Middle Savannah River. The Native Americans who lived here have been referred to as “the people of the shoals.” Known best for their innovations in pottery, these people “fibered” their pottery, that is they mixed Spanish moss and shredded palmetto leaves into the clay for strength.
North America’s oldest pottery lies here, preserved by time and off limits to intruders. The island is considered the birthplace of pottery in North America. The pottery dates back some 4,500 years ago, predating farming in Georgia. The Shoals People long lived off freshwater mussels, piling up mounds of shells known as middens, well before any fields or orchards were conceived.
Archeologists discovered a massive pile of shells 12 feet tall, 500 feet wide, and 1,500 feet long on the island. Artifacts found include stone axes, shell beads, flaked “arrow points,” and “cooking stones” made from soapstones. Don’t think you can go there looking for artifacts, however. The island is protected.
This island, once known as Indian Island, contains numerous human skeletons. So many, in fact, it led explorer Charles C. Jones Jr. to refer to it as “The Island of the Dead” in 1861.
People no longer live on the island but donkeys do. The Archaeological Conservancy purchased Stallings Island and put goats and donkeys on the island to control vegetation. The Conservancy fenced off the large mound to protect it from looters.
Paddle by and you may well hear braying donkeys and bleating goats, placed there to control the island’s vegetation. “The Island of the Dead” … it sounds forbidden and it is but it’s nowhere as dangerous as …
This island sounds like an urban legend. Many people refuse to believe it exists. Even people that live near this island find it hard to believe that approximately 3,500 wild monkeys live there, free ranging, no cages, no pens.
A reporter from the Charleston Post and Courier described what sounds like a scene out of Africa. “The monkeys emerge from a primeval Eden of live oaks, families grappling down the branches, ‘troops’ strutting in the underbrush like little lions, mothers carrying yearlings on their backs.
“In the mist and rain, eerie as ghosts, they surround a human visitor. They whistle like birds and screech and hiss with a sharp intake of breath. Their eyes stare with intelligence and curiosity.”
I can’t tell you where the island is because it’s federally protected. No trespassing. At all. Besides, finding it is near impossible. It’s taken some reporters years to find it. Let’s just say that south of Augusta in the South Carolina Lowcountry, monkeys thrive on a small island somewhere in the vicinity of Beaufort.
Some reports say the species there include rhesus, African green, macaque, common marmoset, Capuchin monkey, and squirrel monkeys. Other reports, and these are more consistent, say only Rhesus monkeys live there. Eyewitnesses indicate that the Rhesus monkeys, native to India, consider the island theirs. No humans dare live there. To go there is to risk being torn apart, especially if you go there during the breeding season. (Nothing worse than a jealous Rhesus monkey.)
The monkeys were first brought to the island in 1979 for the Food and Drug Administration’s Polio Certification program. Their original purpose was to test the effectiveness of polio vaccines. They were left to their own devices, namely to live and breed. Each year adds another 750 newborn monkeys to the island. The new monkeys are tagged or tattooed.
Each year 500 monkeys are taken to labs yearly. The island, according to published reports, is a containment area for the primates that Alpha Genesis Inc. uses for biomedical research. The original colony came from the Caribbean Primate Research Center of La Parguera, Puerto Rico.
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources owns the island today and leases it to Charles River Labs out of Massachusetts through funding by the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAD). NIAD says the monkeys are used to test antibodies for things ranging from HIV AIDS to anti-bio terrorism medications.
Now if all this monkey business sounds captivating and you’re thinking you want to go down Lowcountry way and see the monkeys, be forewarned: you may be endangering your life. According to the CDC, incidents of the B virus existed in free-ranging macaques in Puerto Rico’s Caribbean Primate Research Center, which were moved eventually to South Carolina. Once transmitted to a human, B virus has a fatality rate close to 80 percent. I’m not sure those species inhabit the island, however. Reports conflict.
Another reason not to go is the fact that poachers have sneaked onto the island to hunt monkeys and the monkeys have learned to be aggressive.
I saw a report where some curious teenage boys went to the island for some hunting. Hearing a thunderous, screeching noise they looked up to see hundreds of monkeys swinging down from trees. The boys vamoosed to their boat pelted all the way with the freshest monkey manure imaginable. So, there’s yet another reason to steer clear of Monkey Island.
So, we have Stallings and Monkey Island. Chances are you never heard of either. Exotic islands are closer than we think aren’t they. We don’t need to hop an airplane and fly to other countries. We may not be able to go onto some of them but just knowing they are there makes life more interesting.
A few years back I wrote a little story about a forbidden island and it provided me an escape in my mind as good as going to Africa. Based on some experiences I had in the 1980s, it was a journey like none other.
Are there other exotic islands out there just under our nose? There are. There’s Goat Island where a man and his wife lived alone for 32 years subsisting on the land and what the sea drifted in, living outside man’s laws and conventions. And this island, too, is closer than you think, but it’s a story with a sad ending, a story for another day.