The relaxing shores of Manasota Key bely the excitement researchers feel when standing on the beach.
“We don’t see human remains preserved in a marine setting. That’s just something that does not exist in North or South America,” Dr. Ryan Duggins said.
At least, that’s what researchers thought. Until a surprise discovery last year changed everything.
“A middle-archaic site that dates to approximately 7,200 years ago that has worked wood and human burials,” said Dr. Duggins.
The ancient site is on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico – under 20 feet of water.
“To have it be located on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico in an offshore, unprotected marine environment that’s what’s really remarkable,”said Dr. Duggins.
Dr. Duggins is the Underwater Archaeology Supervisor with the Department of State, Bureau of Archaeological Research. He tells us the site was found almost by accident when a diver stumbled upon it. “There was a local diver who was searching for Megalodon teeth, fossil hunting. Who recovered a skeletal element and contacted my office about it,” Dr. Duggins said.
Two weeks later state researchers, led by Dr. Duggins came down from Tallahassee to see it for themselves.
Native American burial grounds are not unfamiliar around Florida. What makes this find so remarkable is that it's remained intact over 7,000 years of hurricanes, while being immersed in salt water, which isn’t known for preservation. Dr. Duggins said, “Normally it breaks it down and would start the decaying process immediately. What we found to be remarkable about this site is that when it was used, when people were interring the deceased there it was actually a small fresh water pond.”
Researchers speculate sea level rise is responsible for burying the site and part of Florida over the last several thousand years. It’s believed the burial site used to be a fresh water pond with a peet bottom.
“That peet is what allowed for the excellent preservation that we’ve documented,” Dr. Duggins said.
The human remains were buried using an ancient method… one that was not very particular and not widely used. “Wrap the deceased in a fabric cloth, put them on the bottom of a pond and take a series of worked sharpened wooden branches or stakes and place them around the individual to help secure them in place,” Dr. Duggins said.
For Dr. Duggins the discovery is personal. He guessed sites like this were out there… but, until now he had no proof.
“When I was in school people told me you could not find a site like this. That sites like this would not survive sea level rise over thousands of years,” said Dr. Duggins.
But, it did survive and now the task is to preserve it.
“We are most concerned with disturbance to this site. Either intentionally or unintentionally,” Dr. Duggins said. Security measures have been put in place to ensure no one goes to see it for themselves. Local law enforcement are also keeping an eye out.
The remains could be re-interred sometime in the future. Dr. Duggins and his team are working alongside the Native American Seminole Tribe to decide what to do next. “I hope we can use this site to expand our focus on the continental shelf to look for other significant archaeological sites.”
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