Thousands of years ago, ancestors of Florida’s indigenous people buried their dead in shallow, peat-bottomed ponds. As sea levels rose, these watery graveyards were submerged by the Gulf of Mexico. But as Megan Gannon reports for National Geographic, the Florida Department of State announced last week that it had unearthed an Early Archaic Native American burial ground off the coast off Manasota Key. Archaeologists have thus far identified the remains of six individuals, but they suspect that many more bodies may lie beneath the sea floor.
The ground-breaking discovery was made in 2016 by a diver who was searching for prehistoric shark teeth—a popular pastime on the Gulf beaches around Venice, Florida. But instead of shark teeth, the diver found a jawbone, with a molar still attached. He brought the relic to the attention of Florida’s Bureau of Archaeological Research, which confirmed that the jawbone had come from a human.
A team of underwater archaeologists, led by bureau supervisor Ryan Duggins, subsequently set out to explore the site where the bone had been found. “As soon as we were there it became clear that we were dealing with something new,” Duggins tells Gannon. He quickly discovered a broken arm bone, a collection of carved wooden stakes and three separate skull fragments. The team returned to the site in 2017 and found more human bones and wooden stakes, along with textile fragments.
In a statement, the Florida Department of State said that the burial ground has been dated to around 7,000 years ago. At that time, sea levels were much lower than they are today, creating the "small inland freshwater pond" there. Duggins tells Gannon that when ancient indigenous people buried their dead in ponds such as this one, they hammered sharpened stakes into the pond bed, surrounding the body with wooden markings that protruded out of the water.
Though the newly discovered graveyard was eventually covered by deeper waters, the peat bottom remained intact. “Peat slows the process of organic decay,” the Florida Department of State explains in its statement, “which allowed the site to stay well preserved.”
Officials note in the statement that it is “exceedingly rare” to find submerged offshore prehistoric burial sites, especially in North America. So-called “bog burials” are more frequently associated with regions in Northern Europe, where remarkably intact remains have been found. But the newly announced discovery is not the first peat graveyard be unearthed in Florida. Back in the 1980s, archaeologists were able to excavate 168 "bog bodies" at a pond in near Cape Canaveral, which is known as the “Windover” site. Some of the remains were so well-preserved that their brains survived to modern times.
As Rafi Letzer of Live Science points out, the new discovery off Manasota Key suggests the region may hold other unexplored Native American burials that have managed to survive over millennia, withstanding natural forces like erosion and hurricanes. For now, Florida archaeologists are working to dry and desalinate the bones, and they hope the remains will lead to new insights about Florida’s prehistoric populations.
Officials are also taking pains to ensure that the remains are treated respectfully. The site of the graveyard is protected under Florida law, and it is illegal to remove or disturb any artifacts in the area. Duggins tells Gannon of National Geographic that he is consulting with Seminole Tribe of Florida about the treatment of the bones, and Florida officials plan to send a nationwide notice to Native American tribes who might want to claim the remains under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
“As important as the site is archaeologically, it is crucial that the site and the people buried there are treated with the utmost sensitivity and respect,” Timothy Parsons, director of Florida’s Division of Historical Resources, said in the Department of State’s press release. “The people buried at the site are the ancestors of America’s living indigenous people. Sites like this have cultural and religious significance in the present day.”