As It Happens

7,000-year-old Native American burial site found off coast of Florida

Divers came across the ancient underwater graveyard, which is helping archeologists better understand the people who once lived there.
Archaeologist Nicole Grinnan measures the test unit’s depth. Duggins said the team is working to educate other divers and the public about the importance of the burial site. (Ivor Mollema/Florida Department of State)

Story transcript

An ancient Native American burial site has been discovered off the coast of Florida  — and underwater archaeologist Ryan Duggins said it was found completely by chance.

In 2016, an amateur diver was off the coast of Manasota Key near Venice, Fla., searching for the giant teeth of the Megalodon, a shark species that went extinct over two million years ago.

It's a popular spot for the fossil, but what he found instead was a Native American burial site that Duggins says is approximately 7,200 years old.

The discovery was announced by the Florida Department of State.

Duggins, the underwater archeology supervisor for the Florida Bureau of Archeological Research, spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about why this find is so significant.

Here is part of their conversation.

What did you think when you first heard that this diver had found human remains in the Gulf of Mexico?

The first thought that I had was that it must have eroded out from a nearby site, that it couldn't have come from the sea floor.

Ancient Native American burial ground discovered under water

6 years ago
Duration 2:45
Archaeologists observe and take measurements of a 7,000-year-old Native American burial ground that divers found by mistake off the coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico.

And when did you realize ... what they had discovered?

It was the first day on site. We went out with the informant, Joshua Frank, and he took us to the location and we hit the bottom and I looked over to my left and there was a humerus human bone right there on the seafloor.

We swam a little bit further and we found an exposed peat bed on the seafloor that had a large number of wooden stakes actually protruding from the seafloor, and among them quite a lot of clearly human skeleton material.

And this was a burial site. This isn't just where bodies were dumped or ended up. This looks as though it was created?

Exactly. We have archeological evidence here in Florida of middle archaic populations.

So people who were living here 7,000, 7,500 years ago would actually inter the dead on the bottom of a freshwater pond and then put a series of sharpened wooden stakes around the body to help kind of keep it firmly in place.

One of the stakes excavated at Manasota Key Offshore revealed a notch in its length. It is not yet known what the notch was for. (Ivor Mollema/Florida Department of State)

If this was a freshwater pond that was a burial site, how did it end up in the gulf of Mexico? 

We know that the gulf sea levels have changed dramatically. In fact, Florida used to be twice as wide as it is today. 

And when this site was being used by Florida's Indigenous people some 7,200 years ago, sea levels were about four to five miles [six to eight kilometres] further out than they are today.

And the reason why is it was discovered ... how serendipitous is that?

It is, it really is. This is off the coast of Venice, Fla., in the Gulf of Mexico. And Venice is known throughout the state and throughout the southeast as really the hot spot to go and to look for shark teeth, Megalodon teeth.

It just so happened that one of those divers, while looking for sharks' teeth, ended up finding this instead.

And luckily they came forward to my office and said, "Hey, I think I found something. Why don't you take a look?"

The tribe from which these people came — what do you know about how they lived or who they are? 

We know that we see a similar burial practice at roughly the same time at another site on the east coast of Florida called Windover. And that site was investigated in the '80s.

So having another similar site on the opposite coast of Florida certainly does pose interesting questions.

Was this one population? Are they different populations? It's certainly very similar cultural practice and I think it certainly can … help illustrate a lot about life ways in Florida over 7,000 years ago.

Are there those who say you should leave it alone?

It's a difficult situation. If this site was in a state park in the middle of the state, we could build a fence around it. But with this being in the Gulf of Mexico, it's a lot harder for us to do that.

And so what we've tried to do is … engaging with the broader community and trying to educate those who live along the beach as well as divers in the area. 

Convey the significance of the site and also how sensitive it is to let people know that this is something that needs to be respected and something that needs to be left alone.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.