When the 3-year-old died, her parents placed her favorite toys in her arms, wrapped her in fabric woven from fibers of native plants, and buried her body in the soft, muck bottom of a small pond. Some 7,000 years later, when a young archaeologist uncovered her tiny remains, the toys--a wooden pestle-shaped object and the carapace of a small turtle--were still cradled in her arms.
||Most remarkable was the state of preservation of the child's bones and her toys, and the remains of some 167 other individuals and numerous artifacts found in that small pond in Windover Farms subdivision. The pond is about one mile southeast of the intersection of Highway 50 and I-95 and just outside the Titusville city limits where, today, a child's favorite toy may be a model of the space shuttle.|
The site was discovered in 1982 when a backhoe operator* discovered human bones in the black peat he was digging from the bottom of a pond. The developers, after being advised by the county medical examiner that the bones were very old and not the product of a recent mass murder, realized that the materials might be of archaeological significance, so they contacted the anthropology department of Florida State University.
Members of the faculty visited the site and recovered bones of several individuals from the spoil banks. Their first thoughts were that, because of the exceptional state of preservation, the bones were only a few hundred years old. Normally, bone deteriorates in an unprotected grave in about 500 to 600 years due to the high acid level of Florida soil and water.
The developers--EKS Corporation--paid for radiocarbon dating on two samples. The first piece showed an age of 7,330 years, plus or minus 100 years, and the second showed an age of 7,210 years, plus or minus 100 years. Radiocarbon dating over the three seasons of excavation indicated ages ranging from 6,990 years to 8,120 years, plus or minus 70 years.
The pond has proved to be one of the most important and productive "wet" archaeological site in the history of the nation. Scientists from around the world have taken part in the study, preservation, and analysis of materials taken from the pond.
In 1984, with the aid of a grant from the State of Florida, excavation could begin, but there was a monumental problem to be overcome before digging could start: how could they remove enough water from the pond to allow workers to carry out the meticulous removal of the black peat, yet leave the peat wet enough so that the bones and artifacts would not dry out and literally fall apart after nearly eight millennia in the watery grave?
The problem was solved by sinking well points 30 to 35 feet deep around a small area, linking these to a master pipe on the surface, and pumping the water from beneath the bottom of the pond much as one uses a straw to suck liquid from below the ice in a glass of soda. For the second and third seasons nearly 200 well points were sunk around the perimeter of the pond.
From the first day of excavation new skeletal materials were uncovered. It soon became obvious that this was one of the most intact cemeteries of 6,000 B.C. that had ever been discovered.
BRAIN TISSUE INDEX
A most significant find came only weeks into the project when one of the project directors found a lump of slippery, dark brown material inside a skull. There was cautious speculation that it might be preserved brain tissue, but common sense said that would not be possible--that any tissue would have dissipated into the black peat thousands of years ago. Laboratory tests proved however, that cautious speculation had become reality. The material was, indeed, human brain tissue. This first find was from a woman who died at approximately 45 years of age. Over the three six-month field seasons 91 skulls were found to contain brain tissue. Some contained complete brains. Although they were shrunken to a third their normal size, the brain hemispheres and convolutions were clearly intact. The finding of such a large amount of ancient brain tissue made the find especially unique. Never before had scientists had the opportunity to try to clone DNA--the basic building block of heredity from tissue so old.
Brain tissue was taken from the skulls as quickly as possible and placed in plastic bags which were then flooded with nitrogen gas. This purged oxygen from the bag and chilled the tissue. The bags were transported to a laboratory where they were frozen at -70 degrees centigrade to minimize degradation.
Human and animal bone, antler, and wood started to dry out and fall apart within minutes after being removed from the wet atmosphere of the pond, so archaeologists used wet cloths and spray bottles filled with water to keep the materials wet until they were taken from the site. After drawings and photographs were made of the exposed materials, they were removed and put in plastic bags which were sealed to prevent the loss of water. Next, bone and antler were treated with an acrylic emulsion which replaced the water and helped preserve them. Some untreated bone samples were frozen for specialized chemical and protein analysis. Wooden artifacts and fabric samples were soaked in deionized water to remove mineral salts. Water was then replaced with alcohol/ethulose/PEG solutions and the items were frozen or freeze dried.
The skeletons found during the first two field seasons were scattered or mixed with the bones of others. This intermingling and scattering was caused by shifts in the peat due to changes in water level and climate over the thousands of years. During the third field season many fully articulated skeletons were found--all the bones of one person were where they would normally be in relation to one another in the body.
These articulated skeletons gave information as to how the bodies were buried. In many cases they were buried lying on their left sides, in fetal position, with their heads to the west, and faces to the north. There may have been some religious or other reason for their being buried in that position. Only two were found to have been buried in an extended position as we bury our dead today. One of those, a female about 35 years of age at death, was buried face down and still had remnants of her last meal in her stomach--fish scales and bones, seeds from grasses and berries, and bits of nuts. There were more than 3,000 elderberry seeds in her stomach. Elderberry extract has been found to be beneficial in the treatment of some viral infections, but we have no way of knowing if this woman had eaten the berries as a treatment, or if she merely liked elderberries and possibly died of acute indigestion from eating so many.
Ages at time of death ranged from fetus to around 60 years. The skeletons were about 50% adult and 50% children, which indicates a high mortality rate for children of that era, as would be expected. One young mother-to-be died only weeks before she would have delivered a full-term infant.
SOCIAL ORDER INDEX
Some of the findings over the three field seasons revised ideas on the type of life people lived seven to eight thousand years ago. Apparently, they were more caring and less nomadic than was generally believed. In one case, the skeleton of a woman who was more than 50 years old when she died, showed that she had suffered multiple bone fractures several years before her death. Her injuries would have kept her from functioning in a normal way for an extended period. During that time others would have had to care for her and assume the work she would normally have done.
In another case, a boy, 13 to 15 years old, was the victim of spina bifida, a crippling condition caused by the failure of the vertebrae to grow together around the spinal cord. One foot was severely deformed, and bones of the other leg indicated that a terrible--and probably fatal--infection had caused the loss of the foot and part of the leg.
Those two required a great deal of attention and loving care, the woman through a lengthy period of convalescence and the boy for all or most of his life. In a more savage, less developed society, those members of the clan and others such as the elderly, the very ill, or deformed children might have been deserted or even killed.
There was do doubt that they loved and cared for the kin and friends they laid to rest in this small pond. They wrapped many of them in fabric and laid them to rest with valuable artifacts such as bone and antler tools, carved wooden objects, shark's teeth, and stone points.
Their existence, however, was not entirely peaceful. A man who died at about 45 had suffered a fractured right eye orb as the result of a blow from an object such as a sharpened piece of antler hafted onto a wooden handle to form a club. He had also suffered a "parry" fracture of the lower left arm. This is a type injury sustained when a person raises an arm to ward off or "parry" a blow. Both fractures had mended long before his death. His body had been wrapped in fabric and laid to rest with an unusually large number of artifacts. Several double-pointed bone awls were arranged near his head, and a carved antler was near his hands. The antler had a 3/4" hole drilled through it and six small bone "needles" had been placed in the hole. A six-centimeter-long canine incisor from a large cat and a drilled shark's tooth were also buried with the body. The most important artifact was a beautifully crafted stone projectile point. This point would have been especially valuable because stone used to make points or tools is not found in this area; the closest location is more than fifty miles away. The point, along with four others found during the three field seasons, had to have been brought here when the group migrated to the area or obtained through trade.
This man's skeleton was not the only one that indicated that there were disagreements of some sort. A sharpened point made from antler was found imbedded in the pelvis of another man. Depression type fractures of the type resulting from a hard blow were seen in five other skulls, and "parry" fractures were found in several others. Both children and adults had suffered blows that caused those fractures.
The fabric used to wrap the dead is the oldest flexible fabric ever found in this part of the world.The "yarn" was made with fibers from native plants--probably palmetto or queen palm--using at least seven different complex weaves that required the use of some type of loom. Weaving a piece of fabric large enough to wrap around an adult body would have taken a lot of time, so the weavers probably would not have been enthusiastic about stopping their work, disassembling their looms, and moving to another camp site every few weeks. This and other factors indicate that this was a semi-permanent site. They may have moved to this site in the spring and summer to take advantage of fresh fruits and berries, and to the shore of the nearby brackish lagoon--now called the Indian River--during the winter.
The pond is located on grassy lowlands dotted with hardwood hammocks where game, seeds, nuts, cabbage palm, cattail roots, wood for fires, and materials for building huts were plentiful. It is about halfway between the lagoon with its saltwater fare of fish, mollusks, manatee, and turtles, and the Saint Johns river which offered fresh water foods including a type of snail that was a staple in their diet. With the area offering so much, there was no need for frequent moves to find food.
The most frequently identified health problem was one that still plagues us today: arthritis. Many bones showed rough joints and deformities associated with the disease. One older man had three fused vertebrae which would have caused him a great deal of pain. They may have used herbs or other products to help relieve pain to some extent, but for the most part, they suffered and tried to survive.
The craving for sweets had to be satisfied by eating fruits and berries. Because there was no refined sugar, there were few dental caries, but tooth surfaces were worn smooth by grit, sand, tough fibers, bones, and fish scales consumed as part of their diet. Gum-line erosion showed that wooden or bone "toothpicks" were used to remove food and grit from between the teeth. While there were few cavities, more than one jaw showed the ravages of abscesses that would have caused severe pain and illness.
Many artifacts made from wood, bone or antler were found over the three seasons. Several were scribed in geometric patterns. A small bone from a bird was intricately patterned with fine, precise lines which were probably made with a shark's tooth as a tool. The hollow bone may have been used as a whistle.
Several manatee rib "hammers" were uncovered, some with parts of their wooden handles still intact.A dog tooth, held in place with pine pitch as a form of glue, was imbedded in the end of one hammer. The tooth provided a harder surface than the manatee rib.
PHOTOGRAPH of Artifacts (FSU website)
An unexpected find was an atlatl "hook" made from deer antler. The atlatl is a wooden launching device which increases the velocity and the distance a spear can be thrown. The rear end of the spear is nested in the "hook." The atlatl was in use in North and South America for thousands of years before the invention of the bow and arrow, and is still used by hunters in some parts of the world.
Plant materials were often interred with burials. With one, an intact prickly pear pad was recovered. It may have been buried as a food offering since prickly pear seeds were often found in the stomach areas of articulated skeletons. Another burial contained the remains of the fruit or gourd portion of a bottle gourd. Bottle gourds belong to the same plant family as squash and pumpkins. No gourd seeds were found, so it is not known if the plant--which is native to Central and South America--was grown locally, but it is the earliest gourd ever found in this part of the world.
The twelve feet of peat that underlies the pond was built up over the nearly 11,000 years since the last ice age. Samples from different depths gave information on the types of plants that lived in the area and the changes of climate that had occurred over those years. The climate had varied between cold and warm periods over the eons. Leaves that were several thousand years old were intact and as easily identified as they could have been on the day they fell into the pond. Pollen samples showed that chestnut trees flourished in the area about 9,000 years ago.
Why was the wood, bone, human brain tissue and other materials so well preserved? The answer lies in the way the bodies were buried and the nature of the water in the pond. The bodies were evidently buried soon after death--probably within twenty-four hours--before the process of decay had started. With peat covering the bodies, an anaerobic atmosphere was created. That is, oxygen necessary for the growth of bacteria and fungi that cause decomposition, was shut out. Another factor was the almost neutral pH level of the water and the peat. For some unknown reason, Windover pond is only slightly acidic while a number of other nearby ponds tested highly acidic.
We cannot be sure why the people chose to bury their dead in a pond instead of on dry land. The pond may have had some religious significance. Or, they may have been attracted to the pond by the glow of methane "swamp gas" that is sometimes visible at night. Perhaps they believed that the bubbles of methane that rise to the surface as vegetable matter decays showed that the pond "breathed", and could restore breath to those who had stopped breathing--or could breathe for them.
But there may have been more mundane reasons for using the pond as a cemetery. Without shovels, it was easier to dig a grave in the soft muck than on dry land, and animals were less likely to disturb graves under the peat and water. Scientists will never be able to give an absolute answer.
The State of Florida allocated nearly a million dollars for excavation and preservation, but now, a wealth of information lies cataloged and boxed at Florida State University because the state cannot provide additional funds for research. Additional research could tell much about the native Americans who lived near a small pond 4,000 years before Christ was born and 2,000 years before the pyramids were built or ceramics came into existence.
At the end of the 1986-1987 field season the well points were pulled and the dark peat was pushed back into the pond, restoring Windover Pond to its pristine state. The site is now an archaeological landmark, protected by Florida Law and the residents surrounding the pond keep careful watch over this most significant site.
Today, the skeletons from Windover continue to enlighten. They serve as the focus for students and professional alike and have been the subject of several master's theses, dissertations, conference presentations, and academic journal articles. The examination of life and health during Florida's Archaic Period is slowly being revealed through studies of these remains. As molecular analyses improve and diversify, there is no doubt the remains from Windover will provide a unique opportunity to glimpse life and health among ancient Floridians.
Updated 2/28/12 by Dr. Rachel Wentz of the Florida Public Archaeology Network
Few of the residents who drive or bike along narrow Windover Way are aware that beneath the waters of one small pond they pass still sleep some of the area's original inhabitants. These early dwellers, like today's residents, found this quiet, wooded location an ideal place to settle, make a home, and raise a family.
RADIOCARBON DATING INDEX
HOW DOES RADIOCARBON DATING TELL US THE AGE OF BONES AND ARTIFACTS?
For every trillion atoms of carbon in our atmosphere, there is one atom of radioactive Carbon 14. Plants absorb the Carbon 14 from the air, and animals absorb it by eating the plants and other animals. Once the Carbon 14 is absorbed, it begins to disintegrate, but is constantly replenished from the atmosphere or from food.
The Carbon 14 in a plant or animal gives off about 15 disintegration rays a minute--or about 900 an hour. The rays can be detected by a Geiger counter.
When a plant or an animal dies, it stops absorbing new radioactive Carbon 14 and the carbon it has absorbed begins losing its radioactivity at a known rate. It has a "half-life" of 5,730 years, Meaning that after 5,730 years it has only half its original radioactivity, so it gives off only 7.50 disintegration rays a minute. After another 5,730 years one-fourth remains and it gives off only 3.75 rays a minute. After another 5730 years only one eighth of its radioactivity remains. This "half-life" loss continues until radioactivity cannot be detected.
To date an object, a scientist burns a sample to convert it to carbon dioxide which is converted to pure carbon by a process using heated magnesium. The amount of radioactivity that remains in the carbon can then be measured by with a Geiger counter. Using this technique, scientists can determine the age of once-living material up to 50,000 to 60,000 years after death.
© Copyright J.L. Richardson 1997
* The "backhoe operator" referenced in the first few sentences is Steve Vanderjagt. While demucking a pond, Steve noticed what appeared to be a rock, rocks are somewhat scarce in this part of Florida. Steve got out of his trackhoe and investigated the rock and discovered that it was a human skull. without his inquisitive nature this find would remain undiscovered.
Provided by Rod Van Der Jagt - January 22, 2011.
February 5, 2011
When the site closed Steve came back and covered it. He was the start and the finish. Florida Monthly may print this in an upcoming issue. It used to be Florida Living. They printed my original article back in June, 1992.