Windover Burials

The Windover burial site, near Titusville, is one of the most significant archaeological sites in Florida.

A replica of one of the Windover burials

In 1982, a new housing development, to be called the “Windover Farms Community” was beginning construction near Titusville. When a backhoe operator happened to notice a smooth round object in the mud, he went to examine it and was shocked to see that it was a portion of skull that appeared to be human. He contacted local law enforcement. Further investigation by the Medical Examiner revealed that it was not a crime scene, as originally thought, but an ancient burial site.

At first, it was assumed, from the pristine appearance of the bones, that the site was only a few hundred years old. Florida’s soil is acidic, and unprotected buried bones usually do not survive for very long. But when the developers sent a sample to have it radio-carbon dated, they got a shock—the dates came back as over 7000 years old. Knowing that this was of immense archaeological significance, they contacted the anthropology department at nearby Florida State University.

Between 1984 and 1986 there were three excavations by archaeologists from FSU (ultimately joined by specialists and experts from around the world), funded by the State of Florida, which revealed that there were at least 168 skeletons and partial skeletons here, all of them carbon-dated to between 7000 and 8000 years ago, with most clustering around 7200 years before present. Similar underwater burials had been found in other spots in Florida, but Windover was the largest burial of this period found in North America.

Ranging in age from infants to elderly, they had all apparently been wrapped in cloth and then staked down into the mud at the shallow edge of a pond with wooden poles, and because of this unusual method of burial the airless silt which covered the bodies, compressed over time into peat, had kept them in an extraordinary state of preservation. In about one-third of the burials, even pieces of the textile wrappings were preserved, and some bodies were accompanied by small textile bags—some of the oldest known woven cloth in the world. Further, examination demonstrated that the cloth had been woven from hand-twisted palm-fiber cord using some quite complicated methods, possibly involving some type of loom. The level of sophistication indicates that this textile-making process had already been in use for several hundred or perhaps even several thousand years.

The level of preservation was remarkable. In over half of the skulls there were still the remnants of brain tissue, and many of the bodies still contained preserved soft tissue. In one body, the stomach contents were intact enough to determine that her last meal had been berries and fish. One burial contained pads of the Prickly-Pear Cactus, which was probably used as food. (Isotope analysis of the teeth and bones has shown that although the Windover people lived only 30 miles from the Atlantic coast, their diet did not include a significant amount of seafoods.)

About one-fourth of the bones exhibited fractures, usually of arm or leg bones that had healed. One skeleton had bone cancer, and another exhibited the signs of spina bifida, a developmental dysfunction in which the bones of the spinal column do not close properly. This individual was probably paralyzed from the waist down, but had been cared for well enough to reach age 15 or 16.

There were also a variety of tools and other objects found at the site. Stemmed stone arrowheads and atlatl dart points were used for hunting. Only a handful of these were found at the site, however—the nearest deposits of stone suitable for toolmaking are some 50 miles away, so it was probably obtained through trade. The vast majority of the tools were instead made of wood, bone, or antler—perishable materials that are seldom found at other sites this age, but which had been preserved at Windover by the peat and the mud. These included awls and atlatl hooks, which were buried with the men, and several different forms of bone and antler tools buried with the women, which may have been used in the weaving process. Several hafted hammers were found that had been fashioned from the exceptionally-dense rib bones of a Manatee. Some cutting and carving tools had been fashioned from dog or shark teeth (which may also have been obtained through trade).

The excavation at Windover, however, was not easy. The site was still a pond and the water table was very close to the surface, so any digging quickly filled with water. That necessitated a large network of pumps and wellpoints to make the ground dry enough to allow the archaeologists to work, while at the same time maintaining the precious materials wet enough to keep them intact until they could be removed. It was a delicate balance.

The Windover People, as they became known, lived during a portion of North American history known as the Archaic Period. The climate in Florida then was much the same as it is now, with hardwood hammocks surrounded by freshwater wetlands. Plant pollens and other materials found with the bodies indicated that most of them had been buried in the late summer-early autumn period, indicating that this may have been the site of a semi-permanent camp that was used for part of the year. They may have spent their summers here and their winters on the nearby St Johns River.

Prior to the Windover find, it had always been presumed that the Archaic peoples were largely nomadic and lived in small mobile camps while following herds of game. But the Florida excavation demonstrated that these cultures were in fact much more sedentary than had previously been thought. One significant find was a gourd water bottle, found almost completely intact. This was noteworthy because gourds, which are a variety of squash, do not grow very well in the wild and are usually the result of intentional care. In the case of the Windovers, indications were that this was not a fully domesticated plant yet, but that the natives had been tending a wild plant, indicating that they were living in at least a semi-permanent village in a fixed location over a period of several decades. The find predated all of the other North American gourds by almost 3000 years.

And, it is important to realize, this lifestyle was not unique to these ancient Floridians: the Archaic culture was spread all across the Western Hemisphere at the time. They all likely had the same hand-spun cloth and probably the same method of burial: the Windover find only appears to be unique and special because the extraordinary level of preservation allows us to see many things that we cannot find in all the other areas because they have long since decayed away. It is quite possible that much of this culture had been brought over by the original migrants from Asia some 15-20,000 years ago.

Today, the site of the dig has once again completely filled in with water, and appears as an ordinary retention pond at Windover Farms (although it has been designated as a National Historic Landmark). Anticipating that future technologies may allow for a more thorough investigation, the FSU archaeologists allowed roughly half of the site to remain intact and re-flooded, preserving it and protecting it. In the future, archaeologists may decide to re-open the excavations and apply new techniques.

Meanwhile, the Brevard Museum of History and Natural Science, not far away, has extensive exhibits about the Windover burials, which explain some of the archaeology, shows some of the textile fragments and artifacts, present a reconstruction of one of the burials, and displays a forensic reconstruction of the face of one of the Windover people.

One thought on “Windover Burials”

  1. They’d better excavate the site before global warming puts all of Florida under the sea. 🙂

    Of course, nowadays there are all manner of issues when it comes to excavating old Native American burial grounds, so it’s a question whether anyone will be allowed to.

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