Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Dead Souls at Windover Bog
by Robert A. Waters

It’s five thousand years before the birth of Christ.  A small band of men, women, and children subsist in a hard land of scrub pines, saw palmettoes, and hickory trees.  Each year, the group arrives in the Fall and moves on in the Spring.  While here, they breed and live and die.

They bury their dead in a small peat-filled pond.

The forests and swamps surrounding the pond are unforgiving.  It's sizzling hot, humid, and crawling with killer insects, bugs, and spiders.  Poisonous snakes, alligators, panthers, and bobcats hunt in these forests, feeding on prey such as deer, raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, and turtles—or humans.

Fast-forward seven thousand years.  In 1982, a Titusville, Florida backhoe operator named Steve Vanderjagt digs a trench through the mucky soil of Windover Bog.  After a few scoops, he notices what he thinks is a stone in the bucket.  Inspecting it, he sees two hollow eyes staring back at him.  A few more scoops, and he unearths more human skulls.  Could this be the graveyard of a serial killer?  Vanderjagt knows he needs help.  He contacts his employer, developer Jim Swann.

Thus begins a saga unlike any known in Florida.

Archaeologists called to the scene are stunned when they learn that the Windover Bog contains 167 skeletons from the Archaic Age.  Many are in excellent condition, even their brains are preserved.  This is unheard of in Florida, or for that matter, in most of the world.  With financial backing from Swann and the state of Florida, archaeologists begin to peel layer after layer from the mystery of the Bog People, offering intriguing glimpses into the state’s past.

According to archeologist and author Rachel K. Wentz, the group had no metal tools or weapons, no modern medicine, no transportation (except their feet), yet the group and their descendants survived for about a thousand years.  They were peaceful, with almost no deaths from interpersonal violence.  They died of illnesses not unlike those we face today.  Most adults suffered from arthritis.  Some had broken bones, tooth abscesses and gumline erosion, internal parasites, and other maladies.  At least one had cancer.  They had a life-span of about 40 years.

They valued each member of their group, even infants who died shortly after childbirth.  We know this because they buried their dead in the bog facing west toward the setting sun.

Wentz writes that “bodies were carried into the shallow margins of the pond, beyond the thick tangle of tree roots.  Once the body was pushed into the soft soils of the pond, a small tipi-like construction of branches was erected over the body.  The wood used for these shelters was primarily ash.  Ash does not naturally occur near the pond and appears to have been chosen specifically for this purpose.  Perhaps this type of wood held ceremonial significance.  Singular wooden stakes possibly marked the location of individual graves or family units.”

Tools, weapons, toys, fabric, ropes, food, and other items were often buried with a corpse.

As in life, care was taken in death.  A teenage boy with spina bifida had been buried in a loving manner.  The boy couldn’t have cared for himself.  With one deformed ankle and another missing foot, he couldn’t walk, much less work.  Yet someone carried him from place to place for 14-18 years, providing food and water.  The group, or at least someone in the group, loved this crippled child enough to help him through his challenging life.  Like the others, he was buried facing west.

In another instance, a middle-aged woman was afflicted with fused spinal disks and severe arthritis, making it unlikely that she could work.  But she lived for a decade or more with these conditions, meaning that the group must have helped her.

In yet another case, a two-year-old girl was buried with a bone toy in her hand and a tortoise shell bowl beside her.

Seven thousand years ago, in the hard wilderness of Florida, the human species developed compassion, empathy, kindness, and mercy.  When the group died off, did those traits die with them?


NOTE: Much of this information came from the excellent book, Life and Death at Windover: Excavations of a 7,000-Year-Old Pond Cemetery, by Rachel K. Wentz.  If you’re interested in this subject, I recommend this book.  I also recommend that you purchase books directly from the author, cutting out the profiteers at Amazon and eBay.  You can contact Wentz at rachelwentzbooks.com.

1 comment:

Zack said...

That is really interesting. Despite our human tendency toward violence, it is important that love and humanity seem to be our BASIC attributes.