An archaeological investigation uncovered what appears to be a 7,000-year-old Native American ancestral burial site in the Gulf of Mexico near Venice.
Officials say the archaeological site – known as the Manasota Key Offshore (MKO) archaeological site – is unprecedented.
The site is located on the continental shelf, preserved in what appears to have been a freshwater pond thousands of years ago.
Reports of the MKO archaeological site began in June 2016 when divers identified possible human skeletal material just off Manasota Key.
Since then, the Bureau of Archaeological Research (BAR) has been investigating the offshore area and has now confirmed a submerged prehistoric site, measuring roughly 0.75 acres, that existed along the shoreline near Venice during the Early Archaic period, some 7,000 years ago.
BAR says its research shows sea levels were much lower during the time the small inland freshwater pond was present. During that time, it became an internment site for Florida’s indigenous people.
As sea levels rose, BAR says the pond was covered by the Gulf of Mexico, but the peat bottom of the pond remained intact, protecting the remains buried there.
According to the state, underwater prehistoric burial sites are rare. Some of the only other examples are in Israel and Denmark.
In a statement, the Florida Department of State said, in part, “Our hope is that this discovery leads to more knowledge and a greater understanding of Florida’s early peoples.”
BAR says it is developing a long-term management plan for the site that focuses on protection and preservation.
Florida’s Division of Historical Resources (DHR) says it has conducted the project and planning process in communication with the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Office of Historic Preservation.
“The highest priority of all involved is to honor tribal beliefs and customs with respect to this ancestral resting place,” DHR said in a statement.
The state says divers and other interested individuals are prohibited from disturbing the site, out of respect for the individuals buried there and their living descendants.
The site is protected under Florida law, making it illegal to excavate or remove any material or human remains from the site.
Florida law also says it is the state’s responsibility to manage and protect the MKO archaeological site and ensure it is treated in a respectful manner.
The archaeological endeavor has also been assisted by Florida Gulf Coast University, the National Park Service, Florida Public Archaeology Network, Sarasota County Historical Resources, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Law enforcement partners include the Sarasota County Sherriff’s Office and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Additionally, the Venice-based Gulf Coast Community Foundation has helped engage local partners in and around Sarasota County to involve community stakeholders, assist in site protection, and plan for educational opportunities.