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Window on Ancient Life in Miami

Archeologists unearth human remains 2,000 years old in the recently discovered burial grounds of Tequesta Indians' ancestors.

January 22, 2006|Madeline Baro Diaz | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Ancient Florida history is meeting the modern building boom in downtown Miami, where archeological excavations at two construction sites have unearthed 2,000-year-old human remains.

Archeologists said the discoveries were helping them piece together what life was like for the ancestors of the Tequesta Indians, who lived at the mouth of the Miami River.

Archeologists had found evidence of a village in the area before, but not a cemetery.

The remains are evidence of such burial grounds.

"They're just one more part of the puzzle," said project archeologist Bob Carr, of the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy. "No one knew there was a cemetery until the skeletal material was found."

The powerful Tequesta tribe met explorer Juan Ponce de Leon when he arrived in Florida in 1513.

Its members lived on the Atlantic coast, Biscayne Bay and the Everglades.

After slave raids and disease reduced their numbers, they moved to Cuba in the 1700s.

The first isolated remains of their ancestors were found in September 2003 at a project on the north side of the Miami River.

The Royal Palm hotel was once on the site, which is also near an American Indian burial mound destroyed 100 years ago.

The second cemetery was found in 2005 on the south side of the river.

Neither discovery was exactly a stroke of luck.

A city of Miami ordinance requires companies to come up with an excavation plan before developing land in an archeologically sensitive area.

Although many places around the state, including Broward and Palm Beach counties, have archeological ordinances, none are as rigorous as those in Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami, said Ryan Wheeler, Florida's state archeologist.

That has made the area a fertile ground for uncovering evidence of ancient Floridians.

"All of South Florida has really interesting archeological remains," he said. "The reason we know so much about Miami and Miami-Dade is because of these ordinances."

The most famous Tequesta artifact in the area is the mysterious Miami Circle, a series of holes carved into limestone bedrock, which the state bought in 1999.

Excavation crews will wrap up their work in the next few months.

Afterward, scientists will study the remains for clues about the early Miami dwellers, such as how old they were, how healthy they were and what kind of injuries they suffered, Wheeler said.

Scientists will not use any techniques that will damage or destroy the bones.

Once done, archeologists will rebury the remains.

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