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America's Bog People

  • By Peter Tyson
  • Posted 02.07.06
  • NOVA

When most of us think of bog bodies, we think of northwestern Europe—Ireland, say, or Denmark. But North America has its peat bogs, too, and some of them contain the remarkably well-preserved remains of ancient people. One site in particular stands out as America's premier bog-body site: Windover.

Archaeologists removing a crate from a site.

Deep in the peat, Glen Doran (right in photo) and members of his excavation team remove a crate containing ancient fabric from the Windover site. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Glen Doran

Since its discovery in 1982, this small, peat-bottomed pond situated roughly between Cape Canaveral and Disney World in east-central Florida has offered up no fewer than 168 burials. Unlike their European counterparts, these long-dead individuals have no skin remaining; they are skeletons. But they are otherwise so well-preserved that, when unearthed, over half of them still contained brains—brains that once held the thoughts and emotions of a prehistoric people.

The remains, together with artifacts that look like they were deposited yesterday such as bone tools, a bottle gourd, and woven fabric shrouds, offer a rare portrait of life in an ancient hunter-gatherer-fisher community. And ancient it is: radiocarbon dating has placed the burials in an 1,100-year window centered on about 6280 B.C. That's over 3,500 years before the Pyramids were built (and thousands of years older than most European bog bodies). In 1986, when its full significance was coming to light—for one thing, it's the largest collection of skeletal material of this antiquity in North America—Windover was named a National Historic Landmark.

Resting in peat

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

Then, one day in 1982, a backhoe operator who was demucking the pond during work for a new housing development noticed bones sticking out of the ground. The police were called in, but they quickly determined these deaths were not recent. The developer then had the uncommon foresight to contact archeologists at Florida State University (FSU). Too often such sites are destroyed before archeologists even hear about them, and today, for all the benefits it offers, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, makes it difficult for such remains to be unearthed (and for them to be shown on this Web site).

Windover was not a dumping ground for criminals but a community cemetery.

But this was pre-NAGPRA, which was passed in 1990, and experts realized what they had. "We were pretty excited," says Glen Doran, an FSU archeologist. "We knew immediately when we went down there in '82 that here was a real opportunity." The developer gave his blessing (he was later awarded the Interior Department's Public Service Award), the Florida Legislature provided the funding, and three seasons of excavation got under way in 1984 under Doran's leadership.

Workers, covered in mud, installing a drainage system

Before excavation could begin on the water-saturated bog, workers had to install a pumping system, which removed thousands of gallons of water every hour. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Glen Doran

The remains rested about halfway down in the 20-foot-deep deposit of peat. 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.

A hard but good life

Through rigorous analysis of the skeletons and the remains found alongside them, scientists have been able to surmise a great deal about how these early Floridians lived—and, in some cases, died. It was a hard life, and new research is providing details on the physical stresses this population faced. Yet clearly life could be good at Windover, or they would not have lived in the area so long.

These early Floridians, it seems, resided in a kind of sedentary hunter-gatherer-fisher community. The sheer number of burials showed that these people were not constantly on the move, as hunter-gatherers typically are. Analysis of organic remains in the bog revealed a rich surrounding ecosystem, which offered plentiful resources and allowed them to stay put for a time. Paleobotanists have identified 30 species of trees that existed around Windover. These include those typical of hardwood hammock (live oak, ash, American elm, red mulberry) and freshwater swamp (black gum, swamp dogwood, willow) as well as pine woodland.

A wooden stake stuck in the layers of a peat bog

The last person to hold this wooden stake before the excavators found it was a Native American who lived more than 80 centuries ago. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Glen Doran

These humid subtropical forests, which closely resemble forests in the area today, offered up more than 30 species of edible and/or medicinal plants. Berries and other soft fruits appear to have made up a large part of their diet. In one woman's stomach—or at least where her stomach had once been—the researchers discovered high concentrations of elderberry, nightshade, and holly. They speculate she may have been consuming copious amounts of a medicinal concoction made from these plants to fight the illness that eventually took her life.

Other signs of a reasonably stable life appeared. Unlike many bog bodies in Europe, these skeletons showed few signs of having met violent ends. Windover was not a dumping ground for criminals but a community cemetery. The persons buried in the pond were almost exactly half male, half female, and while experts believe half of them were younger than 20 when they died, they think the rate of subadult mortality here was lower than that found in later, more complex societies. Moreover, some of the Windover folk lived into their 70s, a ripe old age for that time.

In addition, many of the dead, particularly the younger ones, were wrapped in handmade fabrics or textiles. These finely crafted materials fly in the face of any stereotypical notions one might have of hunter-gatherers as hide-wearing primitives. The archeologists also discovered a wide range of wooden artifacts—a double-ended pestle, a mortar, and a snare among them—as well as assorted bone tools. Most of the bones came from white-tailed deer, but bobcat, manatee, shark, opossum, and turtle are also represented (and point to some of the meats the people consumed). Along with the textiles, these wood and bone artifacts provide additional evidence of a notable sophistication.

Teasing out secrets

The scientists' painstaking analyses—which remain ongoing, almost 20 years after the excavation ended—have led to many additional discoveries. They know, for instance, that most bodies were buried within 48 hours of an individual's passing. How do they know? Because in hot, humid climates like central Florida's, brain matter tends to liquefy quickly after death. The fact that 91 of the skeletons had intact brain masses suggests rapid interment.

"The site now looks like just another little Florida bog. You’d never know anything was there."

They also know that most burials took place in late summer and fall, roughly between July and October. Again, how? Because the plant material they found associated with certain bodies, and which they conclude had constituted that person's last supper, are known through modern counterparts to become ripe for eating during those months of the year.

Archaeologists' site at the peat bog in Florida

When the dig ended in early 1987, roughly half the site remained untouched, possibly awaiting future archeologists and future techniques. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Glen Doran

They have also discovered, at least so far, no biological affiliation between these early Floridians and modern Native American groups. They know this from studying DNA that survived within the corpses' brains and bones. "One can envision these folks as being ultimately ancestral to people in that area," Doran says. "But the DNA signatures that we can see certainly are not 1:1 matches for modern groups."

More work remains to be done, however. In fact, if there is one area of the investigation that has not yet borne fruit on a par with its other successes, it's the DNA work. "To tell you the truth, it's been very frustrating," Doran says. "The DNA in most archeological sites is just not as well preserved as we'd like, and we're kind of waiting, I think, for some of the DNA extraction and purification techniques to improve."

Left alone

Waiting for techniques to improve is one reason why Doran and his colleagues decided to leave about half of the Windover site intact. In theory, somebody in 50 or 100 years could return to the pond, excavate untouched materials, and use newly developed techniques to learn more than scientists can today.

"The site now looks like just another little Florida bog," Doran says. "You'd never know anything was there—it's just invisible." Just as it was for over 9,000 years after the last body was cloaked in a shroud and staked down.

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program The Perfect Corpse.

Peter Tyson is editor in chief of NOVA Online.

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