During the construction of a new housing estate on a marsh in Windover, Florida, an ancient burial ground was accidentally discovered. It quickly became one of North America’s most important archaeological sites.
From the depths of Windover Bog emerged over 160 prehistoric skeletons, miraculously preserved and therefore able to give scientists unexpected clues about their lives, thousands of years after they died.
Cutting edge forensic techniques were used to expose extraordinary detail of the lives of these Native American ancestors. The swamp became key to learning about a society so ancient that almost all traces of it have completely vanished.
A family affair
The bog held a Stone Age dynasty. Generation upon generation of a single interrelated clan were returning their dead to the earth as a family tradition.
The dramatic dental wear of the skulls gave a clue to the age of these people. These days we only use our teeth for chewing food but in ancient cultures, teeth were all-purpose tools, faced with much tougher wear and tear than we give our teeth today.
Radiocarbon dating was used to measure the amount of radioactive carbon in the bone to reveal when they died. The results exceeded expectations. The bog was an unprecedented window into a mysterious prehistoric age in North America over 7000 years ago.
Before the excavation could begin a colossal obstacle stood in the archaeologists’ way – millions of gallons of water.
It took two years to come up with a solution to emptying the marsh. It was an epic engineering operation sinking 150 well points into the peat and pumping out 700 gallons of water a minute round the clock.
The five skulls found by accident were just the tip of the iceberg. This was an unbelievably rare discovery of a prehistoric burial ground. Dating tests reveal that the burial ground was in use for 1300 years.
Unusually, the chemistry of the Windover peat was non-acidic, which allowed the remains to be preserved in a cocoon of decomposed vegetation that shut out fungi and bacteria. These bones would have completely disappeared after just a few years had they been buried in dry earth.
A rare discovery
Throughout the excavation, the team was continually stunned as they unearth not just bone but things far more fragile and rare.
The unearthing of unusually heavy skulls stopped the archaeologists in their tracks. Common sense told them that the mass inside the skulls had to be peat but later testing revealed the preserved human brains.
After seven millennia in the water, the brain had shrunk to a quarter of its normal size but it was unmistakably still a brain. The team discovered 91 brains in total.
The brains were so perfectly preserved at a microscopic level that they could see cell structure. This was the first sign that the oldest human DNA might still be preserved within.
The inhabitants of Windover
The early inhabitants of America descended from people who had crossed over from Asia at the end of the Ice Age. The DNA of these Native Americans is easily distinguished from all other ethnic groups.
DNA shows that they hadn’t interbred outside of their own tribe, suggesting in this age, it was perhaps rare to come into contact with other tribes. Their Native American genetic type tells us they look much like today’s Native Americans with dark hair, eyes and skin.
These people were taller than people from many later cultures. Forensics show that some Windover men stood at nearly six foot and their bone density reveals that they were healthy.
Radioisotopic analysis was used to measure traces of chemicals in the bones to give insight into their diet. This technology provided evidence to suggest that Windover was not their home. The people buried here were nomadic, travelling around the Florida peninsula.
By combining the DNA results and facial reconstruction technology the team produced an accurate picture of a tribe member. History was coming alive in front of them.
The human condition
Next to the skeletons, the archaeologists found jewellery, ornaments and weapons. Highly valued offerings were placed with the bodies during the burial ceremony suggesting Windover was a sacred place, perhaps believed to be a gateway to the next life.
An elaborate death ceremony involving all the care and respect of a modern-day funeral was emerging. When someone died in the area, they would be wrapped in a garment or blanket. There was then a procession to the bog where the body was placed under the waters and pinned down using stakes. These people would have felt all the same emotions that we would with the passing of a friend or family member.
The 7,000 year old bog bodies of Windover Pond is available to watch on Absolute History.