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August 16, 2021

Windover, A 7,000-Year-Old Pond Cemetery / Research



In a comment on my Florida & Seminole History blog post, M.J. Fifield brought up a fascinating discovery I hadn’t come across in my research…the Windover Archeological Site. She mentioned that the remains dated back to 6000 B.C. Immediately, I was intrigued.

So, I did research.

My main source of information was Life and Death at Windover: Excavations of a 7,000-year-old Pond Cemetery by Rachel K. Wentz.

I am actually acquainted with someone (through M.J.) who did CT scans on some of the remains. Her name is Rita. In fact, the cover of Life and Death at Windover uses one of Rita’s scans.

The Windover Pond has been called “one of the most important archaeological discoveries in the world.”


Interesting Facts:

  • This pond, located in present-day Titusville (in Central Florida), is a Middle Archaic (6000 to 5000 BC) underwater burial site.
  • The human remains and artifacts are 7,000 years old.
  • That’s 3,200 years older than King Tutankhamen.
  • And 2,000 years older than the Great Pyramid in Egypt.
  • Archaeologists found the remains of 168 individuals, from infants to about 60 years of age, as well as 119 artifacts.
  • The bodies were so well-preserved from the peat and neutral pH of the pond that there was brain matter present in 90 skulls.
  • These brains (I cannot write that or read that without thinking about zombies) were the “most ancient DNA yet analyzed at the molecular level.”

At one point, the author of Life and Death at Windover said that the pond the Indigenous peoples buried their dead “just happened to be neutral pH,” while the majority of the ponds around it were highly acidic. But what if it wasn’t a coincidence? Indigenous peoples work closely with the land, they pay attention to the earth, and they know medicinal uses for plants and other natural materials. They might’ve known, through living near that pond and examining/witnessing it, that is was magical, different, and that could by why they chose it to be the sacred site for their dead. In fact, evidence shows that they used that specific pond, none of the others in the area, for one thousand years. One website says they could’ve been drawn to the pond “by the glow of methane ‘swamp gas’ that is sometimes visible at night.” [1]

  • The brain matter allowed for DNA sequencing, and the "DNA indicated Asian origin, similar to that of the four other major haplotypes of Native American peoples." [2
  • However, DNA analysis indicated that the Indigenous peoples buried in the pond were not related to any living Native American population today, indicating that their descendants either all died off or were significantly reduced “prior to the evolution of the genetic markers” found in modern populations.


So, how was this underwater burial site discovered?

In 1982, Windover Pond was one of many ponds being cleared so the Windover Farms housing development could be put in their place.

Makes you really think about all the land and bodies of water that are cleared away for yet even more housing developments and mini malls, etc. and what could be there, or, rather, what developers and construction workers could be disturbing (even hiding from public knowledge), doesn’t it? I know it makes me stop and think about that, especially as I’m seeing more and more land in my area getting bulldozed for communities and complexes.

But that’s another topic.

Let’s get back to what’s considered “one of the most important archeological sites ever excavated,” which, even with my statement above and at the end of this post, is exciting and extremely fascinating (hence why I wanted to share all this with you).


Discovery:

  • The land had belonged to the Tisch family who wanted to sell all sixty-five hundred acres so they could buy a large insurance company. That insurance company fell through. No worries, though, because they used their money to buy CBS instead. 
  • EKS, inc., run by Jim Swann, bought their land for the Windover Farms housing development.
  • Steve Vanderjagt discovered the first skull and following bones, which included a second skull, while making passes with his backhoe through the muck surrounding the pond.
  • Interestingly, right after those few bones were discovered and removed and the crew, as well as Jim Swann, were trying to figure out what to do next, the skies became dark. A storm blew in.

Now, some would say (as the author of Life and Death at Windover did) that it was just shadows from the storm and wind-blown palm fronds, but a young crew member named Lester Canada swore he saw “three Indians running across the road.”

Panic and superstition, or spirits of the remains from that pond? 

Well, I wouldn’t discount what Lester saw. At that time, none of them had any reason to believe they’d just found the bones of Native Americans, let alone prehistoric Indigenous peoples. At that point, without knowing about the restorative powers of the peat, those bones could’ve belonged to anyone, even someone buried there 5+ years prior. (I read that an un-embalmed adult in ordinary soil could take 8-12 years to decompose to skeleton. But, of course, many factors, including temperature, humidity, and insects, could speed this up. And when submerged in water, about five years.) With all that in mind, Lester had no reason to believe they were Indian bones in order to work himself up. If it was me, I would’ve thought they were two murder victims. So I wouldn’t discount what he saw, before the discovery even had a chance to begin, before anthropologists had a chance to examine the bones and artifacts.

  • The storm brought forth more bones.
  • The local coroner took the bones. The next day, the coroner said the bones were not from modern-day Floridians.
  • Jim Swann wanted the bones back. They were returned and held in five-gallon holding cells for a few months.
  • Finally, they contacted the University of Florida, but Dr. Brenda Sigler-Eisenberg, an archaeologist, and Dr. William Maples, a renowned forensic anthropologist in Florida, both passed after seeing Windover Pond. Why? Because in order to excavate, they’d have to drain the pond of water, a time-consuming and expensive process. They also didn’t know how old the bones were or if there were more to be found. The state of the bones was also a factor. Remember, they had no idea about the peat strong enough to preserve bones for thousands of years.
  • Jim Swann then contacted Florida State University and Glen Doran.
  • The first test that was done was radiocarbon dating that reported the age of three tested samples (the other two done to be sure the first result was correct and not contaminated by the ancient peat) as being 7,000 years old.
  • After rejections for funding to excavate from FSU and Governor Graham vetoing a bill, they finally were able to move forward when the revised bill passed in the summer of 1983.


Excavation:

  • The excavation process lasted from 1984-1886. 
  • The center of the pond turned out to be over twenty feet deep, in comparison to the many shallows pounds throughout the construction of Windover Way.
  • The deepest layer of peat in the pond was found to be over 10,000 years old.
  • Seeds and plant remains in the peat, and the wooden stakes used to secure the bundled bodies to the bottom of the pond, indicated that the Indigenous peoples used the pond during late summer and early autumn. They may have lived somewhere else during the other months or the pond might’ve been too murky for interments during the winter. (Where they buried their dead during the winter is unknown, although I found speculation that they may have moved to the Indian River Lagoon. [3]
  • During excavation, the skulls with brains were brought to Wuesthoff Hospital in Rockledge where they were stored in freezers within the Pathology Department. The hospital’s radiologists performed x-rays and scans. (Enter Rita.)
  • Afterward, the skulls were sent to Gainesville for DNA extraction.
  • The remains were also found to have been wrapped in textile cloth.
  • The bodies, in a flexed position, were wrapped in material made from cabbage palm or saw palmetto fibers, and then the bundles were pushed to the bottom of the pound and secured there by wooden stakes. This kept them safe from predators. Only six human bones, out of 10,000+, showed evidence from carnivore damage (gnaw marks).
  • The bones revealed that these people suffered from arthritis, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, and a young man even had spina bifida. 
  • The Windover people were intelligent. Not only were most of their broken bones healed but they were in proper alignment, meaning they understood the importance of immobilizing limbs with splints.
  • They also had consumed berries (found in their bellies) for their analgesic and anti-rheumatic properties (like Elderberries and nightshade) or for pain relief (like grape seeds). This is, as the author of Life and Death at Windover says, “one of the most ancient examples of medicine in human history.”


Additional Facts:

  • Windover Pond became a spectacle during the excavation. The media wanted constant updates and so many visitors came unannounced that the team ended up designating Friday’s for school group visits and Saturdays for the public. They created a walk with volunteer guides at posts to recite information, almost like a museum or zoo.
  • An adjacent hammock had artifacts like pottery. How pottery was made throughout history has changed, from five thousand to three thousand to one thousand years ago. The pottery that was found had St. Johns check-stamps, indicating that they were one thousand years old, so the people who lived in the hammock came six thousand years after the people who had been buried in the pond. 
  • Only half of the pond was excavated. The other half was left for future examination.
  • In 1987, the Windover Archaeological Site was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
  • The Brevard Museum of History and Natural Science in Cocoa has the only comprehensive exhibit for Windover.
  • December 2013, Windover Pond was purchased by the Archaeological Conservancy, “the only national, nonprofit organization that identifies, acquires, and preserves the most significant archaeological sites in the United States.” [4]


Final Thoughts:

Now, there are federal laws protecting and prohibiting the excavation of Native American remains and gravesites.

Under Chapter 872.05 of Florida Statutes, “It is the intent of the Legislature that all human burials and human skeletal remains be accorded equal treatment and respect based upon common human dignity[...]”

It is a third-degree felony if someone “willfully and knowingly disturbs, destroys, removes, vandalizes, or damages an unmarked human burial” and a misdemeanor of the second degree if someone has knowledge of this taking place and doesn’t report it.

While this means that archaeological digs like this may no longer take place in the United States/Florida, limiting discoveries, I personally believe these laws are right and abiding by them is the respectful thing to do so that the remains of Indigenous ancestors and prehistoric peoples stay in their final resting places (where they were buried by loved ones in ceremony) and the sites left in peace. 


Resources:

Life and Death at Windover: Excavations of a 7,000-Year-Old Pond Cemetery, Rachel K. Wentz, 2012

Windover: Multidisciplinary Investigations of an Early Archaic Florida Cemetery, Glen H. Doran, 2002

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windover_Archeological_Site

http://www.nbbd.com/godo/history/windover/



18 comments:

  1. This is such an interesting burial site. I often think of what our surroundings once looked like befoe all our houses, malls, businesses, etc took over the land. I'm glad Native American sites are now protected.

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  2. I've never heard of this site. It's so interesting. Thank you for the information.

    Love,
    Janie

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  3. Hi Chrys - it sounds such an interesting site ... and I noted that the sea level was considerably lower when the burials occurred - but obviously one can see imaginations working overtime before technology settled various aspects. Great ideas for authors ... thanks for this - cheers Hilary

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    1. Thank you for visiting and for commenting, Hilary!

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  4. It does make me sad when beautiful forests or other land is replaced by housing developments and mini malls. Your post made me think of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, where Calvin and Hobbes spent many days playing in the woods; these days, that isn't even an option for most kids because humans have taken over the majority of nature.

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    1. It makes me said, too. Right in my neighborhood two huge areas have been plows for $200K housing communities. And the same day this post went up, two lots perpendicular from my hours were cleared.

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  5. Thanks for the insight. There's a lot I learned from this post including to insist that if I'm to be buried, make sure the ph is such that I decompose so that no one is looking at my brain 6000 years from now... I know, I'm a kill-joy for some future scientists.

    if you're interested in such ancient history, I would recommend Craig Child's "Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America"

    https://fromarockyhillside.com

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    1. Your comment made me laugh. Thanks for the book recommendation!

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  6. Um, that is so fascinating! I'm glad I had my cup of tea with me. :)

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    1. Ha. I know. It’s a long post, but I like to be thorough when sharing research. :)

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  7. Wow. That was so much to process and you gave us the condensed version. Thank you for sharing this.

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    1. You’re welcome, Toi! Thank you for reading and processing all that info. I hope it was fun and/or fascinating. I thought it was. :D

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