TITUSVILLE, Fla. - Tucked behind a leafy oak hammock near this Brevard County city, a murky blackwater bog containing some of the world's rarest archaeological treasures will remain protected from a potential housing development. The vegetated 8.5-acre upland buffer bordering the Windover Archaeological Site has been purchased for $90,000 by The Archaeological Conservancy. This New Mexico-based organization has acquired and preserved more than 465 historic sites across the United States.
A backhoe operator stumbled upon the prehistoric burial ground in 1982. Since then, scientists have excavated 168 remarkably preserved skeletons dating to the Early Archaic period from Windover's swamp - including some of the oldest brain DNA samples ever found on the planet.
Radiocarbon dating of these bones goes back as far back as 8,120 years, thousands of years before the Great Pyramids of Egypt were built.
The threat of land-clearing construction had encroached the renowned archaeological site the past four years, specifically single-family housing. A financially struggling landowner, the Rockledge-based Preservation and Education Trust (PET), nearly placed these five undeveloped housing lots accessing the National Historic Landmark on the real estate market.
"Windover is an extremely significant and important site. It's unique," said Jessica Crawford, The Archaeological Conservancy's Southeast regional director in Marks, Miss. "We'll do what we need to do to keep it protected and keep it intact," Crawford said.
Windover's prehistoric inhabitants may have descended from the Asian migrants who crossed the Bering land bridge into North America during the last Ice Age.
Excavation at the Windover Archaeological Site occurred from 1984-86. Scientists unearthed semi-domesticated plants; the skeleton of a boy with spina bifida who lived to about age 15; and some of the Western Hemisphere's oldest textile fabrics. These discoveries forced archaeologists to revise their theories of North America's early inhabitants, who were thought to be nomadic hunter-gatherers.
Key finds included 91 skulls containing brain tissue; hammers fashioned from manatee ribs; and knives and scrapers made using shark and wolf teeth.
The Archaeological Conservancy's recent acquisitions also include Cayadutta, a Mohawk village near the Adirondack Mountains outside Johnstown, N.Y.; Kentucky's Backusburg Mounds Indian site; and the high-altitude Sopris settlement outside Basalt, Colo., which dates to the Archaic Period.
Cocoa resident Rachel Wentz, a Florida Public Archaeology Network regional director, worked about a decade analyzing Windover skeletons at a Florida State University laboratory. Her book Life and Death at Windover: Excavations of a 7,000-year-old Pond Cemetery was published last year.
Roughly two months ago, she toured the bygone burial bog with a camera crew for an upcoming History Channel program.
"I just think it's wonderful news. The site is so important to what we have discovered - and can learn - about ancient Floridians," Wentz said.