In an unprecedented discovery, archaeologists identify a site where prehistoric people once buried their dead—now submerged beneath the waves.
enice is Florida’s unofficial capital of fossil hunting. Divers and beachcombers flock to this city on the Gulf Coast, mostly seeking palm-sized teeth of the Megalodon, the enormous shark species that went extinct 2 and half million years ago. In the summer of 2016, a diver searching for those relics picked up a barnacle-crusted jaw from a shallow spot off the shore of Manasota Key. The specimen sat on a paper plate in his kitchen for a couple weeks before he realized it was probably a human bone.
The diver sent a picture to Florida’s Bureau of Archaeological Research, where it landed in front of Ryan Duggins, the bureau’s underwater archaeology supervisor. A single molar was still attached to the jawbone, and the tooth’s cusps were worn smooth, likely from a diet of tough foods. “That’s something we don’t see in modern populations, so that was a quick indicator we were dealing with a prehistoric individual,” Duggins explains.
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With a team of fellow underwater archaeologists, Duggins relocated the dive spot about 300 yards from the shore and 21 feet below the surface. “As soon as we were there it became clear that we were dealing with something new,” Duggins recalls. First, he spotted a broken arm bone on the seabed. Then, when he noticed a cluster of carved wooden stakes and three separate skull fragments in a depression, Duggins realized he might be dealing with a Native American bog burial site—one that had been inundated by sea level rise, but was miraculously preserved.
The discovery was announced today by the Florida Department of State.
During the last ice age, the Floridian peninsula looked more like a stubby thumb than an index finger. But beginning around 14,000 years ago, the global climate began to warm, causing glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise. Florida shrank over the next several millennia, and countless places where prehistoric people once lived, hunted, and buried their dead disappeared beneath the waves.
Marine archaeologists traditionally believed those now-submerged sites would be too fragile and ephemeral to survive the violent thrashing of the sea. “The vast majority of underwater archaeological projects have historically been focused on shipwrecks,” Duggins says. However, in the past couple of decades, some prehistoric sites, mostly scatters of stone tools, have been identified off Florida’s coast. Duggins thinks what he found near Manasota Key proves these underwater landscapes have much more archaeological potential.
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In 2017, the team went back to the site to excavate a small test unit. They carefully dug through layers of peat beneath the seabed, sometimes using chopsticks and pastry brushes. They found densely packed organic remains, including more human bones, sharpened wooden stakes and textile fragments. Radiocarbon tests on the wood indicate the site dates to 7,000 years ago, during the Early Archaic period, a time when Florida’s hunter-gatherers were starting to live in permanent villages and adopt a sedentary lifestyle. So far, the researchers have counted a minimum of six individual sets of human remains, but “there’s probably going to be a lot more,” Duggins says, adding that their surveys of the site suggest the whole graveyard could spread across an acre.