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Rare, 7,000-year-old burial site discovered in Gulf of Mexico off Florida coast

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 3/1/2018 Chad Gillis

Manasota Key, Florida © MyLoupe/Universal Images Group/Getty Images Manasota Key, Florida FORT MYERS, Fla. — Archaeologists have discovered a 7,000-year-old burial site in the Gulf of Mexico after a tip from a recreational diver who found human remains at the site in 2016. 

Called Manasota Key Offshore, the site is off of Sarasota County and appears to have been preserved in what was at the time a freshwater peat pond. 

Although other sites in Florida predate this one by thousands of years, researchers called this latest discovery unprecedented. 

"Despite thousands and thousands of years of hurricanes, storms, erosion and rising sea level, the continental shelf can contain deposits with organic material," said Ryan Duggins, with the Florida Division of Historic Resources. "I think that’s going be the ripple effect (in the science community)." 

Duggins said he and others had assumed there weren't any preserved sites in the Gulf of Mexico because it has a sandy bottom and sand does not preserve organic material very long. 

This site, however, is made largely of peat soils. 

"I was always kind of told that a site like this wouldn’t exist in the Gulf of Mexico, that it wouldn’t be able to survive," Duggins said. "Just out of sheer luck, a citizen brought this information to our attention and it’s been a great experience." 

The site is about 300 yards off Manasota Key and is now being patrolled by law enforcement officers and volunteers to make sure no one dives too close to it.

A recreational diver found human bones at the site in the summer of 2016, and Duggins and his team started diving and researching the site soon after. 

The site is so well-preserved that even wooden stakes found there look as though they were buried recently. 

"It looks like it was almost put there yesterday," Duggins said. "We’ve recovered sticks that are sharpened on the end, they have marks on them and you can see charring, and normally wood is the first thing that goes. It disintegrates."

The oldest site in Florida found so far is in the Big Bend area and dates back 14,500 years, according to researchers. 

The Manasota site is about three-quarters of an acre in size and was located along the shoreline.

The stakes were carved 7,214 years ago, according to carbon dating. 

Sea levels were much lower during that time, and the remains at this site were well preserved because they were in a peat-bottom pond. 

The peat stayed in place while the sea levels rose, protecting the artifacts and bones. 

A Florida Gulf Coast University professor is in charge of preserving the artifacts that were extracted. 

"In all of the work that I do, I never lose track of the fact that I am handling materials that are of special importance to families and groups, especially those of the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes of Florida," said Heather Walsh-Haney, an FGCU forensics professor. 

Due to the sensitive nature of the site, the exact location is not being released to the public. 

The location is protected under Florida law, and it's illegal to disturb the site or remove anything from it. 

“As important as the site is archaeologically, it is crucial that the site and the people buried there are treated with the utmost sensitivity and respect," said Timothy Parsons, director of the state's division of historic resources. "The people buried at the site are the ancestors of America’s living indigenous people. Sites like this have cultural and religious significance in the present day." 

Duggins said he'd like to explore other areas near in the area to see if this burial site is part of a larger ancient community that would offer more clues as to what life was like here 7,000 years ago. 

"I’m very confident that Florida’s continental shelf holds a lot more archaeological material that can be found," Duggins said.

Follow Chad Gillis on Twitter: @ChadGillisNP



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