By: David Fleshler
During show-and-tell at her school, a 7-year-old girl displayed an unusual fragment of bone and teeth that she had found near the beach in Boca Raton. Her teacher called the police.
The girl and her baby sitter had unearthed a human jawbone while using a metal detector to explore an area just south of Spanish River Park. Detectives and uniformed officers arrived at the scene, and the bone went off to the medical examiner. But it turned out this was a case for archaeologists, not homicide investigators.
The bone, found in February 2013, is estimated to be from between 1000 B.C. and 750 A.D. It is one of eight sets of prehistoric human remains found around Florida that were announced recently by the National Park Service, under the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act.
“Florida has been occupied for over 12,000 years, so there are a lot of unmarked graves throughout the state,” said Brittany Lesser, spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Historical Resources, which has custody of the bones. “We get dozens of such cases every year.”
Under the law, such discoveries must be investigated, made public, and if no link exists to current tribes, offered to the tribe that had most recently occupied the land. In this case, that’s the Seminole Tribe, which began moving onto the Florida peninsula in the 18th century.
“The recent notice means this case is in the early stages, and leaders of the Seminole Tribe are beginning to discuss next steps,” tribe spokesman Gary Bitner said. “Respect for human remains is of particular cultural concern to the Tribe. As in all such cases, the specifics of how this occurs are worked out in private consultation.”
Last January, work crews installing a new water line in Davie unearthed the 2,000-year-old skeleton of a woman, either a Tequesta Indian or from the people who preceded that group. The remains were transferred to the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes for reburial.
“Most often, human remains are found on archaeological projects or during construction,” Lesser said. “In areas where ancient burial grounds may be impacted by development, we recommend working with a professional archaeologist to help detect and protect unmarked burials within the framework of the law.”
One of the sets of human remains announced by the National Park Service was confiscated from someone suspected of illegally removing archaeological materials from Silver Glen Springs Run in Marion County. Another was turned over by the attorney for someone who had obtained them second-hand from Hatbill Park in Brevard County. A set of bones from three people turned up at an estate sale in Daytona Beach.
The Florida Division of Historical Resources has placed the remains at its research facility in Tallahassee.
A preliminary examination of the bones found in Boca revealed they were from an adult of undetermined gender between 40 and 50 years old, according to a Boca Police report.
The date of the bones could not be determined with precision because the Seminole Tribe does not allow radio carbon dating because it doesn’t want the remains disturbed. But Chris Davenport, Palm Beach County‘s historic preservation officer and archaeologist, said they likely came from between 1000 B.C and 750 A.D., judging from the pottery shards found on the site, which came from established periods in Native American prehistory.
Found by the sea wall of a condominium complex south of the park, the bones come from an area called Boca Raton Beach Midden 5. Earlier excavations produced pottery shards and other artifacts from hunter-gatherer cultures identified through their styles of pottery because that’s what tended to survive.
Among these is the Belle Glade culture, which began around 1000 B.C., and the Glades culture, which began around 500 BC. Both cultures died out with the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.
Also found at the site were piles of turtle shell fragments, a state report says, indicating the site may have been a seasonal location for processing sea turtles caught during nesting season.
Davenport said such coastal sites are common throughout South Florida, with as many as 20 in Boca Raton and Highland Beach.
“It has to do with the availability of food,” he said. “The Intracoastal Waterway was a actually a chain of lakes, so you would have fresh water as well.”