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Archaeology finds new picture of Paleo Indians

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Lisa Wolfe
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« on: January 12, 2011, 01:23:10 pm »

Archaeology finds new picture of Paleo IndiansBy: Robert Suriano, Florida Today

Melbourne -- Food was plentiful in the lush land that was Broward County 8,000 years ago, making life good for the people who buried their dead in a shallow pond near Titusville. They walked the ground between the site of today's Walt Disney World and the Space Coast, hunting white-tailed deer and bobcat among the pine and oak trees. They fished for bass and sunfish or scooped up turtles, frogs, and snakes. Their primary job -- filling their stomachs -- took only about two hours each day, leaving plenty of time for making jewelry from bones and seeds or weaving clothing from the leaves of sabal palm.

That is a richly detailed picture that continues to emerge today of the Paleo-Indians, whose watery burial ground was discovered in 1982 during construction of a housing project off State road 405. Known worldwide as the Windover Archaeological Site, more than a decade of research from that dig is challenging previous notions about these people of the distant past.

The Windover site, named for the sprawling rural housing development that surrounds it, bore archaeological treasures that amazed experts with their quality and quantity.

Skeletal remains of 169 people, split almost evenly between males and females, ranging from 6 to 70 years old. About 75 of the skeletons were relatively intact.
90 intact human brains that include the oldest DNA samples in the World.
Artifacts of wood, bone, and seed that were made into jewelry and tools, providing insight into the ancient peoples' lives.
Tests showed the oldest skeletons were buried 8,100 years ago. The youngest was placed in the ground 6,900 years ago.
"To put this into context," Doran said, "these people had already been dead for 3,000 or 4,000 years before the first stones were laid for the Egyptian pyramids!"

They were lean and robust, most likely a copper-skinned people. The tallest man stood 5 feet and 6 inches tall. The average woman was 5 feet and 2 inches.

Like all people of their time, about 6,000 BC, they kept moving in a yearly pattern that followed the most ample sources of food. For this group that meant walking the land between the St Johns River and the Ocean.

They had risen above the subsistence level, giving them time to do things not typically associated with early people.

But they were not free from human hostility. The remains of a 29 year old male show a deep wound in the buttocks, probably caused by an antler. The injury is such that Doran thinks it was caused by a human wielding the antler in anger. He says that the wound is counter to previously stated views of these people as passive. Most of the other skeletal remains showed signs of long festering infections that likely brought natural deaths during a time before antibiotics and medicine. But overall, the group appeared to be healthy. They had triumphed over the rigors of daily life.

"Relative to a lot of other populations at this time period, these folks were relatively well off." Doran said. A sign of their wealth is the cloth that was found among the bodies, the oldest cloth ever found in the Western hemisphere.

"This cloth will set the example," Doran said. It is rare that fabric textiles even 1,000 years old are preserved in the United States."

All told, 87 cloth fragments from an estimated 67 complete items were recovered from the dig. The cloth was made from the leaves of sabal palm. The pieces reveal five different methods of fabric making, all without benefit of a loom. Even so, some fabrics are woven as tightly as a cotton T-shirt. Others are made more loosely twined into blankets, capes, and toga-like garments.
Some skeletons were found with especially fine cloth, suggesting some of the dead enjoyed a special status, but not necessarily a society of kings and paupers. In addition to the cloth, artifacts of bone and wood were found among some of the skeletons. They include a wooden pestle and a paddle, perhaps used to pound plant fibers for weaving; a small hammer, needles made from deer antler, and the bones of manatees, rabbits, and fish.
If the number and quality of skeletal remains at the site caught the attention of archaeologists, an added discovery in 1984 caused great excitement.

They found one skull that contained a soft, greasy, lard like substance. Doran scooped the material out and stored it in the refrigerator of his Cocoa apartment before sending it to a laboratory for chemical analysis. He guessed that it could be anything from slime mold to brain tissue.

"Organic matter," was the laboratory analysis. The material had decayed too much for the tests to determine whether it was human brain tissue.

A second chance came in December. Archaeologists found another skull with the substance inside. This time they sent the entire skull to the University of Florida laboratory in Gainesville, where molecular biologist, William Hauswirth and his colleagues were waiting. Instead of spooning out the material. Hauswirth removed the rear portion of the skull and tilted it. A shrunken but intact human brain slid out! Over time, the organ had lost mass and its tissue had mixed with peat, but the softball-sized matter was clearly a brain.

By the end of the excavation, 91 brains were recovered. Ninety of them, minus the first that was not salvaged, are stored in the pathology freezer at Sands Hospital in Gainesville.

Although brain tissue has been discovered before, this was the first time that intact human brains had been preserved. Even while the bodies' other soft tissues deteriorated, the brains were secure in the safest place in the body, the skull.

"The crania is well designed to protect your brain while you are living," Doran said. "The end result is that it protects it when your are dead too."

The brains hold a frozen gold mine of genetic information in the form of DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid. While Doran said he thinks older human DNA has been recovered elsewhere in the World, so much of the genetic material never has been isolated from a single group of people.

Hauswirth said it contains genetic markers, or specific segments of DNA that are affiliated with one small subset of modern American Indians. This suggests that the Windover people did not reproduce with people from other groups, a finding that again challenges previous assumptions.

A New Culture Model for the Ancients

The primary significance of Windover is the seeming sophisticated culture of these people who lived there 8,100 years ago and before. Windover dates an advanced culture in North America that precedes any previously discovered anywhere else in the World. Their egalitarian culture paints a new picture of ancient people of the Americas. Until now, the model of ancient peoples pictured roving bands of hunters, grunting semi-savages, having no culture to speak of. Of course, the 4,700 BP pyramid builders of Egypt had advanced further in terms of architectural achievements and they had pictograph symbols to convey meaning, but they came along 3,400 years after the Windover people. Windover revealed a culture of people in the New World, twice as old as the Egyptian culture. Of course, there are artful paintings of animals and symbols in caves that are attributed to the Neanderthals, but little else to associate with Culture.

Now we know that 8,000 years ago, the Windover people wove fine cloth.; They buried their dead ceremonially. They cared for each other; by indulging and taking care of the handicapped. And they adorned the bodies of their dead with fine clothing, placing them in special positions that were spiritual to them, and things that would be useful in an after life were buried with them.

Logic places them in Florida for quite some time before they buried their dead in that peat bog. How long?; 1000 years? 5000? Could the ancestors of the Windover people have been the Clovis of New Mexico 11,000 years ago? Time, distance, and logic says not. The Windover people might be the ancestors of the Seminoles. They might be related to other Paleo Indian cultures of North America, past and present. There is sufficient human DNA to find out. The ancient human DNA is of such quality as to allow genetic cloning, or to make comparisons with present living ethnic groups, or to test kinship with other ancient peoples. But the latter would require usable DNA, and this treasure trove seems to be the oldest group of human DNA ever found anywhere in the World. Also, the artifacts collection has an abundance of the oldest fabrics ever found in the Western hemisphere... 8,000 year old cloth woven as fine as in a cotton t-shirt! At first it was thought that the clothing was hand woven, but that does seem to be possible. They must have used some sort of apparatus, a loom, to weave such fine cloth.

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