The Windover Archeological Site is an Early Archaic (6000 to 5000 BC) archaeological site found in Brevard County near Titusville, Florida, USA, on the central east coast of the state. Windover is a muck pond where skeletal remains of 168 individuals were found buried in the peat at the bottom of the pond. The skeletons were well preserved because of the characteristics of peat. In addition, remarkably well-preserved brain tissue has been recovered from many skulls from the site. DNA from the brain tissue has been sequenced. The collection of human skeletal remains and artifacts recovered from Windover Pond represent among the largest finds of each type from the Archaic Period.
Windover is a small pond, about .25 acres (1,000 m2) in area, that has held water continuously since sometime between 9000 and 8000 BC. It is next to the Atlantic coastal ridge about 5 miles (8 km) from Cape Canaveral. As the sea level was considerably lower 7,000 to 8,000 years ago than it is today, the pond originally sat above the water table, and was filled only by rainfall and runoff from the surrounding land. At that time the pond had a relatively thin layer of peat under a thin layer of water. The subsequent rise in sea level raised the local water table, and in more recent times the pond has been fed by groundwater as well as rainfall. In 1984 the pond had a thick layer of peat, with five strata described by the archaeologists who excavated the pond. The peat in the center of the pond was covered by 6 feet (2 m) of water.
Discovery and excavation
The site was discovered in 1982 when work began on building a road across the pond in a new housing development, Windover Farms. A backhoe operator noticed several skulls in the bucket of his machine. The sheriff and medical examiner determined that the burials were not recent. The developers, Jack Eckerd and Jim Swann, halted construction at the pond and called in archaeologists. Radiocarbon dating on two bones excavated from the pond by the backhoe, paid for by the developers, yielded dates of 7,210 years and 7,320 years Before Present, establishing the importance of the find. The developers changed their development plans in order to leave the pond intact and donated $60,000 worth of pumping equipment to drain the pond for excavation.
Funding to excavate the pond was acquired in 1984. The buried bones were 6 feet (2 m) or deeper beneath the surface of the peat at the bottom of the pond, under 3 to 10 feet (3.0 m) of water. Researchers used a network of 160 wells around the pond to lower the water table enough to permit excavation of the peat. The workers used shovels and hand tools to remove the peat until the level of the burials was reached. One of the lead archaeologists compared excavating the peat to trying to dig chocolate mousse under water. Only half of the pond was excavated, with the remainder left undisturbed for future investigation.
The remains found included bones of males and females of all ages from infants to about 60 years, a total of 168 individuals. The average height of adult males was 5 feet 9 inches (175 cm). Skeletons showed the effects of disease and healed wounds, allowing forensic studies. Many bones of children showed interrupted growth, perhaps due to severe disease or malnutrition. Osteoporosis was evident in older females. Adults of both sexes exhibited a high incidence of osteoarthritis, also a continuing problem for humans. 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.
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 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 for 15 years in a hunter-gatherer community.
While some of the remains were mixed, about 100 undisturbed burials were found with fully articulated bones, in roughly the correct position and relationship in the body. Most were buried in a flexed position, on their left sides, and with their heads toward the west. The bodies were held down in the graves by sharpened stakes. The bodies were buried in clusters, in five or six episodes of short duration that were scattered over a thousand years. Thirty-seven of the graves contained woven fabrics, indicating that the bodies had been wrapped for burial.
In late 1984 the archaeologists discovered that brain tissue had survived in many of the skulls. Lumps of greasy, brownish material was found in several skulls when they were opened for examination. Suspecting that this was brain tissue, the researchers sent the intact skulls for X-ray, CAT scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which showed recognizable brain structures. In addition, cell structures were seen under a microscope. At least 90 of the recovered bodies had brain tissue that survived, due to the preservative effects of the peat. 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.
Gut contents were found with many of the burials. These 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.
Many artifacts that were deposited with the bodies were also preserved. Archaeologists at this site were able to recover a total of 86 pieces of fabric from 37 graves. These included seven different textile weaves, which appeared to have been used for clothing, bags, matting, and possibly blankets and ponchos. Numerous other artifacts, such as atlatls and projectile points, were also 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. Animal bones and shells found in the graves indicated that the people ate white-tailed deer, raccoon, opossum, birds, fish and shellfish.
Windover is one of a number of Archaic period sites in Florida with underwater burials in peat. Similar burials occurred at Little Salt Spring 5,200 to 6,800 years ago, Bay West (in Collier County) 5,940 to 6,840 years ago, and Republic Grove (in Hardee County) 5,690 to 6,470 years ago. Stakes were driven into the peat through fabrics wrapped around bodies at Windover. Similar stakes were found associated with burials at Bay West and Republic Grove. The stakes may have been used to help hold the bodies underwater. There were also burials (although not in peat) in the sinkhole at Warm Mineral Springs, dating as much as 12,000 years ago. Robin Brown notes in connection with these underwater burials that many Native American groups have a tradition that spirits of the dead are blocked by water. William McGoun suggests that a “water mortuary cult” may have been widespread in southern Florida from Paleoindian times into the historic period. As late as 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, bundled, defleshed bones were stored on a wooden platform set in the middle of a pond at Fort Center.
Windover Pond is one of a number of sites in Florida excavated since 1970 that have led to a major reassessment of the Archaic period in Florida. Jerald T. Milanich states that Windover has provided “unprecedented and dramatic” information about early Archaic people in Florida, and that the Windover site may be “one of the most significant archaeological sites ever excavated.”.