Remarkable 7,000-Year-Old Native American Underwater Burial Site Found By Diver Searching For Megalodon Tooth

Archaeologists have uncovered a large 7,000-year-old Native American burial site beneath the waters off the coast of Manasota Key, Florida, in what has been described as an "unprecedented" discovery.

The first evidence of the remarkably well-preserved burial site emerged in the summer of 2016 when an amateur diver came across a human jawbone on the seabed, 21 feet (6.5 meters) below the surface, while searching for the teeth of a giant ancient shark species—the Megalodon—which are commonly found in the area.

The diver sent a picture of the jawbone to Florida's Bureau of Archaeological Research, where underwater archaeologist Ryan Duggins noticed something intriguing.

The only tooth still attached to the jawbone—a molar—was very worn, suggesting it must have belonged to someone who ate much tougher food than what we are used to today.

"That's something we don't see in modern populations, so that was a quick indicator we were dealing with a prehistoric individual," Duggins told National Geographic.

Subsequently, Duggins and his colleagues carried out non-invasive investigations of the site—located 900ft (275m) from the shore—uncovering burial grounds estimated to cover an area of more than 32,000 square feet (3,000 square meters).

An underwater archaeologist at the Manasota Key Offshore site. Ivor Mollema/Florida Department of State

So far, the team have found the remains of at least six individuals—including pieces of skull and broken arm bones—in addition to carved wooden stakes and textile fragments. However, the researchers expect to find more, given the size of the site and the fact that investigations are only in their preliminary stages.

They dated the objects found to around 7,000 years ago— during a period known as the Early Archaic—using radiocarbon techniques.

"Seeing a 7,000-year-old site that is so well preserved in the Gulf of Mexico is awe inspiring", Duggins said in a statement. "We are truly humbled by this experience. We now know that this type of site exists on the continental shelf."

Seven thousand years ago, the Manasota Key site would have looked very different to how it does today. Sea levels were much lower, meaning it was likely still part of the mainland, although the burial grounds may actually have been the site of an ancient freshwater pond.

Previously, evidence has been found to suggest that prehistoric Floridians placed their dead at the bottom of ponds, which is likely what happened at Manasota Keys.

The bottom of the pond was covered in peat, which slowed the process of organic decay, allowing remains and items at the site to stay well-preserved, the researchers said. Over centuries, rising sea levels eventually covered the burial grounds as the Florida shoreline gave way to the ocean.

Little is known about the Indigenous peoples of Florida during the Early Archaic period, but research suggests that this time was marked by a transition from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to more sedentary societies.

The archaeologists and state authorities are now working with Indigenous representatives to ensure that the remains are treated appropriately.

"It is important to remember that this is a burial site and must be treated with the utmost respect," Duggins said.

He added that the find will "will forever change the way we approach offshore archaeology. As we continue to learn as much as possible from the site, we look forward to sharing that knowledge with the people of Florida."