Brevard Museum of History and Natural Science


The Windover Archeological Site is an Early Archaic (6000 to 5000 BC) archaeological site and National Historic Landmark in Brevard County near Titusville, Florida, USA, on the central east coast of the state. Windover Pond has proved to be one of the most important and productive "wet" archaeological sites 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.


DISCOVERY OF A LIFETIME
HUMAN REMAINS OF THE WINDOVER POND
WHAT WE LEARNED FROM THE BURIALS
REMARKABLE PRESERVATION
ANCIENT WEAVERS

The site was discovered in 1982 when work began on building a road across the pond in a new housing development. A man named Steve Vanderjagt, was operating the backhoe, and stopped his work when he encountered what was first thought to be large rocks. He knew the area wasn't known for having boulders and rocks. They turned out to be human bones. Work was halted while authorities were called to determine the age and circumstances of the remains. Archaeological staff from Florida State University visited the site and recovered bones of several individuals from the construction spoil banks. Normally, bone deteriorates in about 500 to 600 years due to the high acid level of Florida's soil and water. Because of the state of preservation of the Windover bones, it was first thought they were only a few hundred years old.

The subdivision developers paid for radiocarbon dating on the two bones taken from the site. 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. [Subsequent 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 developers changed their project's plans in order to leave the pond intact and donated $60,000 worth of pumping equipment to drain the pond for excavation.

In 1984, with the aid of a grant from the State of Florida, excavation began. A lot of plumbing engineering was implemented in order to drain the pond to allow the excavation, but also to keep the peat layers wet enough to preserve the remains and artifacts. The buried bones were 6 feet or deeper beneath the surface of the peat at the bottom of the pond, under 3 to 10 feet of water. A network of 160 wells were dug around the pond to lower the water table enough to permit excavation of the peat. Workers used shovels and hand tools to remove the peat until the level of the burials was reached. Only half of the pond was excavated, with the remainder left undisturbed for future investigation. 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.

For over 8,000 years, the Windover burials lay undisturbed in an oxygen-free crypt made of peat, as generations of subsequent Native Americans, and eventually Europeans, and other modern Americans, lived out their lives all around them.

The remains rested about halfway down in a 20 foot deep deposit of peat. They included bones of males and females of all ages from infants to about 60 years, a total of 168 individuals. The skeletons generally lay on their left sides, with their heads west of their pelvises, as if in deference to the setting sun. Most were in a fetal position; only three were extended, as we bury our dead today. Many were also staked down with wooden poles thrust through the fabric that enshrouded them. This may have been done to keep the bodies from floating to the surface, or to protect them from scavengers. Indeed, of more than 10,000 human elements recovered from the site, just six showed signs of having been gnawed by rodents or other creatures. Some stakes were notably larger than others; experts say those bigger stakes may have marked off burial zones.

Children constituted about half the remains. Skeletons showed the effects of diseases and healed wounds. Many bones of children showed interrupted growth, perhaps due to malnutrition. Adults of both sexes exhibited a high incidence of osteoarthritis. Some skeletons showed wounds that were likely the cause of death. The pelvis of one male had a bone spear point embedded in it. Others had severe skull fractures. Judging by the skeletons, the women were about 5 feet 2 inches tall and the men averaged 5 feet 6 inches, although some were as tall as 6 feet. They were robust and heavily muscled and lived a long time for that period - 65 to 70 years in some cases.

The Windover burials are evidence of a people that loved and cared for each of its members, both in life and in death. The dead were often wrapped in shrouds; a child was buried cradling her toys; a man was buried with many bone tools and a stone projectile point. These burial rituals are evidence of strong beliefs. Healed wounds and one embedded arrow tip indicate some level of violence, but there is also a great deal of evidence that these people loved and cared for their family members. The skeleton of one woman showed that several years before her death she had suffered multiple bone fractures. Tribe members would have had to care for her while she healed, as well as taken up her part of the group’s work.

Only two people 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.

Children and teenagers were buried with more grave goods than were adults, indicating the high value placed on children. Skeletons included one of a male aged about age 15, who had spina bifida. All of his bones were found to have been fragile. One of his feet was missing and the stump of his lower leg had healed. As his spinal condition almost certainly meant the boy was paralyzed below the waist, this find was important for assessing the society's commitment to ensure his survival. When 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 the small pond. Some 7,000 - 8,000 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.

Due to the preservative effects of the peat, archaeologists discovered that brain tissue had survived in as many as 90 of the skulls. The state of preservation of the brain tissues indicated that the bodies were buried in the peat within 24 to 48 hours after death. This preservation allowed researchers to sequence DNA from the brains. DNA indicated Asian origins and a rare haplogroup, which shares no biological affiliation to later groups of Native Americans who inhabited the region. There were also indications, that in one case, the same family used this grave site for over a century.

Gut contents were found with many of the burials, and we can always learn more about a people when we know what they ate. Finds included seeds of wild grapes, elderberries and prickly pear fruit, often in large quantities. The people's teeth were worn down early in life, presumably from sand in food, but very few had cavities. Shells found in the graves indicated that the people also ate shellfish, but not in the quantities of later indigenous populations. Most of the faunal remains discovered at the site came from white-tailed deer, but bobcat, manatee, shark, opossum, and turtle were also represented, and point to some of the meats the people consumed.

Many artifacts made from wood, bone or antler deposited with the bodies were also preserved. 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. Items such as atlatls and projectile points, were found at Windover. The occupants of Windover hunted animals, fished, and gathered plants. They used bottle gourds for storage, which comprise the earliest evidence for vegetable container storage discovered in North America. The archaeologists also discovered a wide range of wooden artifacts like a double-ended pestle, a mortar, and a snare. Assorted bone tools were also present. 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.

Because the artifacts had been buried in a waterlogged peat soil, when uncovered they were in a remarkable state of preservation. If no special treatment had been used, the artifacts would have dried out and fallen apart within minutes of being uncovered. To save the artifacts, they were placed in a plastic bag to preserve the moistness, treated with acrylic emulsion and placed back in water.

While humans have created textiles since the dawn of culture, many are fragile and disintegrate rapidly. Ancient textiles are preserved only by special environmental conditions like that of Windover Pond's peat rich bog. The textile arts of ancient indigenous peoples of the Americas were either decorative, utilitarian, or ceremonial, and were made from plants and animals.

One of the most significant elements of the Windover site was the discovery of the oldest complexly woven cloth made of plant fiber in the Americas. Pieces of 7,000 to 8,000 year old fabric were found with human burials at the Windover Archaeological Site in Florida. Since the burials were in a peat pond. The fabric had turned into peat, but was still identifiable.

Many bodies at the site had been wrapped in textiles before burial. Eighty-seven pieces of fabric were found associated with 37 burials. Researchers have identified seven different weaves in the fabric. One kind of textile weaving had 26 strands per inch (10 strands per centimeter). There were also weaves using two-strand and three-strand wefts. A round bag made from twine was found, as well as matting. The yarn was probably made from palm leaves. Cabbage palm, saw palmetto and scrub palmetto are all common in the area, and would have been so 8,000 years ago.

Using at least seven different complex weaves, this ancient fabric may have 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 campsite every few weeks. This and other factors indicate that this was a semi-permanent site. They may have moved to Windover Pond in the spring and summer to take advantage of fresh fruits and berries, and to the shore of the nearby brackish Indian River during the winter.


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.


 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

ALSO AT THE BREVARD MUSEUM OF HISTORY AND NATURAL SCIENCE
Besides the immersive and interpretive "The Windover Pond Story" exhibit, the museum has an extensive collection of other Native American artifacts. Some tell the story of the first inhabitants of Florida and the later Seminole people. There are also displays of large animals that were extinct before Windover Pond inhabitants lived in the area. These include Woolly Mammoths and Sabre Tooth Tiger. Regional history and natural science, the story of the Canaveral Lighthouse, and travelling and temporary exhibits are also provided.

THE NATURE TRAIL is a hidden gem. Bounded by the Clearlake on one side and the museum on the other the trail takes you through marsh and a subtropical Florida. Over a mile of trails, including a wetland boardwalk, bring you in contact with the same flora and fauna the Native Americans would have encountered.


Caution: This museum exhibits "true-life casts" of skeletal remains in a realistic display to educate people about the Windover site's unique place in history. Some people may find this disturbing. No real human remains are on exhibit.


PLAN YOUR VISIT

MUSEUM ADDRESS:
2201 Michigan Avenue, Cocoa, FL 32926
PHONE: (321) 632 - 1830
HOURS: Thursday - Saturday 10:00 am to 5:00 pm Last Admission is at 4:00 pm
WEBSITE: https://myfloridahistory.org/brevardmuseum


page information credit: Brevard Museum of History & Natural Science, University of Florida, Florida Museum of Natural History, Florida Department of Historical Resources, Wikipedia, and previous Trail website content
photos from the sources listed above, as well as publicly posted online sites with thanks to the contributors