'Unprecedented' 7,000-year-old burial site off coast of Manasota Key

- An accidental discovery in the Gulf of Mexico from thousands of years ago could help us understand more about Florida’s first inhabitants.

National Geographic calls it “unprecedented." How did it get there? How did it remain intact all these years? That's what researchers are working to figure out, and they're asking the community for help protecting it.

Divers journey to Venice in search of giant shark teeth But, in June 2016, an amateur diver stumbled upon something much more amazing, rare, and unexpected.

"He came across a jaw with some teeth in it and he was very curious about what that was," said Capt. Jamie Bostwick of Aristakat Charters, a friend of the diver.

The state confirmed that it was part of a burial site of Florida's indigenous peoples, dating back more than 7,000 years.

"They buried their dead in a very specific way by using wooden stakes to pin the bodies down into a marsh or bog-like situation," said John McCarthy, executive director of Historic Spanish Point. "What was uncovered in the sand was actually the burials with woven materials and wood and the human remains themselves."

Tuesday, about 500 curious minds came to Englewood United Methodist Church to learn what it all means. McCarthy, who served as Sarasota County's official historian, led the presentation.

"This is a burial site," McCarthy said. "This is a site that deserves reverence and respect."

The site measures less than an acre. During the Early Archaic period, sea levels were lower, so this used to be a freshwater pond where people interred the dead. Eventually, sea levels rose, the gulf covered the pond, and peat helped preserve the remains.

"There is no other site on the planet where they have been found in a marine environment in the bottom of an ancient peat bog," McCarthy said.

There's a reason for these meetings. Researchers want to find out if there are other sites likes this, and to warn people not to disturb it, which would be a felony.

"It's amazing it survived all the elements and Mother Nature and hurricanes and the water depleting and coming back and forth," Bostwick said. "I hope they come up with some way to identify the area so other divers and other people know where to stay away from."

It's a thrilling discovery to those dedicated to protecting everything in the Gulf waters, living or not.

"It was very interesting to know that I've been walking out there in the morning, looking out there in the Gulf and seeing something that's going on out there that's 7,000 and some years old," said Maggie Probst.

Researchers have been surveying and sampling the site, learning more about how, even the woven artifacts survived all these years. They'll craft a long-term plan for preserving it, and will likely add markers or signage so divers don't disturb it. At this point, the exact location is not being revealed publicly.

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