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Are These the Skeletons of the First European Colonists in the U.S.?

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The city gate to St. Augustine, built in 1808, centuries after the city was first settled by Spanish colonists. Image Credit: Yakin669 via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

When Hurricane Matthew roared through St. Augustine, Florida, in October 2016, many of the town’s historic buildings were damaged. But it wasn’t until a building owner decided to tear up a flooded floor to mitigate water damage that an historic discovery was made—what may be the skeletons of the earliest European colonists in the United States.

The city of St. Augustine was founded by admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who had sailed from Spain and spotted land in what is now Florida on August 28, 1565. Menéndez became the first governor of Florida, and St. Augustine was its capital for two centuries. Although Pensacola, Florida, is the oldest multiyear European settlement, founded by Tristán de Luna in 1559, St. Augustine, located in the northeast part of the state, wins the title for being the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the contiguous U.S.

Given the age of the city, St. Augustine’s archaeological team has worked for decades to shed light on various phases of occupation. In 1572, the town was relocated from a barrier island onto the mainland, following difficulties defending it from the Timucua Indians. Shortly after this move, the first parish churches were established: Nuestra Señora de la Soledad and, slightly earlier, Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, the parish church of St. Augustine.

The sites of both churches, which were in use between the 16th and 18th centuries, have seen archaeological excavations over the years, including the discovery of numerous burials. La Soledad produced evidence of European, African, and Native American individuals buried in Spanish and British styles, while Los Remedios has European and Native American burials in Christian style.

New graves discovered during flood mitigation in January are being excavated this week by city archaeologist Carl Halbirt due to a planned expansion of a water main through St. Augustine’s Charlotte Street. Halbirt and his team found burials both under the cobblestone street and within what is now the Fiesta Mall, a small building in downtown.

Based on the majolica pottery inclusions, the burials date to 1572–1586 and were therefore almost certainly among the earliest made in St. Augustine. The style of burial is Christian, with the skulls oriented to the east and the arms crossed over the front of the body. The discovery of these graves also means that archaeologists have further physical evidence from Los Remedios, cementing its label as the oldest known parish church in the United States.

John Worth, an archaeologist at the University of West Florida who was not involved in the study, tells mental_floss that this discovery is immensely significant. “Not only do they contribute to an understanding of the church itself, the burials may provide an opportunity to learn more about Florida’s earliest European permanent residents, including perhaps where they originally came from,” Worth says. If the people unearthed were indeed founders of St. Augustine, Worth notes, their skeletons may reveal “the struggles of life during the first two decades of the city’s earliest history.”

Analysis of the remains themselves is only just beginning, but preliminary work by University of Florida anthropologist John Krigbaum suggests the people who were just found appear to be European adults. If the state allows destructive testing, further research will be done on samples from the skeletons to potentially investigate their geographic origins, diets, and any diseases they had. The burials themselves, though, may stay put under the floor or may be reburied at the historic Catholic Tolomato Cemetery.

For a look inside the excavation, check out the segment below from First Coast News.

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science
6 Pioneering Facts About Mary Leakey

Fossil bones and the earliest footprints of our human ancestors are just a few of Mary Leakey’s groundbreaking discoveries. Get to know the legendary paleoanthropologist, and learn how her serendipitous finds forever altered scientists’ understanding of human origins.

1. MARY LEAKEY WAS A BORN EXPLORER.

Mary Leakey (1913-1996), née Mary Nicol, was destined to be an explorer: Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a landscape painter, and the family traveled extensively through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While staying in a commune in southern France, 12-year-old Mary became interested in archaeology after meeting Elie Peyrony, a French prehistorian excavating a cave. Mary dug through his tiny finds—which included fine points, scrapers, and flint blades—and sorted them into an amateur classification system.

2. FOSSIL HUNTING WAS IN HER BLOOD ...

Leakey’s parents were artists, but hunting for fossils was part of her heritage: Her maternal great-great-grandfather was John Frere, an 18th-century English government official and antiquarian who’s credited with first recognizing Stone Age flint objects as early weapons and tools.

3. ... BUT SHE WASN'T A GREAT STUDENT.

Leakey was intelligent, but she also had a rebellious streak. As a teen, she was expelled from several Roman Catholic convent schools—once for intentionally creating an explosion in a chemistry lab. Figuring she wasn’t cut out for a classroom, Leakey never finished high school, and decided to pursue independent studies in art, geology, and archaeology at the University of London instead. (“I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly never would,” the scientist later wrote in her 1986 autobiography Disclosing the Past.)

4. LEAKEY WAS AN ARTIST WHEN SHE MET HER FUTURE HUSBAND AND RESEARCH PARTNER, LOUIS LEAKEY.

Mary Leakey—who inherited her father’s artistic skills— ended up working as an illustrator for archaeological digs. An archaeologist introduced her to Cambridge University paleontologist Louis Leakey, who needed an illustrator for his book Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The two became lovers, but their union resulted in scandal, as Leakey was still married at the time. The couple married in 1936, after Leakey divorced his first wife.

5. MARY LEAKEY'S FIRST BIG DISCOVERY WAS PROCONSUL AFRICANUS.

Mary Leakey's first major discovery came in 1948 when she found a fossil skull fragment of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans, which later diverged into two separate species. The fossil was thought to be more than 18 million years old.

6. ANOTHER ONE OF MARY LEAKEY'S FAMOUS FINDS CAME COURTESY OF ELEPHANT POOP.

In 1978, Leakey was on an expedition in Laetoli, in Tanzania, when members of her camp engaged in a spirited elephant dung fight. A scientist fell down, and he noticed strange indentations on the ground that had been recently exposed by erosion. They turned out to be tracks made around 3.7 million years prior, from animals that had walked over damp volcanic ash. Examining these prints took several years, but the team's efforts paid off when Leakey noted that one of the prints seemed to be made by a hominin. This discovery showed that early humans began walking upright long before scientists thought they had.

Additional source: Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, Virginia Morell

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Researchers Unveil an Unusual New Theory For How Easter Island’s Statues Were Made
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Moai statues of Easter Island present one of the world's greatest technical mysteries. The stone heads (actually full bodies) that dot the island in the South Pacific are massive and number in the hundreds, prompting archaeologists to wonder how they got there in the first place. Now, as Newsweek reports, a group of researchers believe they're closer to finding an answer.

European sailors first arrived on Easter Island in 1722 and were greeted by a native population of 1500 to 3000. Along with the residents were 900-odd statues carved from solid rock, meaning there were fewer than four people for every massive monolith.

How was such a thin population able pull off such an impressive feat of architecture? According to researchers from Chile, New Zealand, and the U.S., it's possible they had help. Their new study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution suggests that the statues were carved and erected at a time when Easter Island supported a much larger population. Using data from the island, they estimated just how high the island's numbers may have reached.

Easter Island has the agriculture potential to sustain a maximum population of 17,500, researchers say. This estimate is based on the weather and soil quality of the island, 19 percent of which is capable of growing the sweet potatoes that fed inhabitants. "Despite its almost complete isolation, the inhabitants of Easter Island created a complicated social structure and these amazing works of art before a dramatic change occurred," lead author Cedric Puleston said in a statement.

If the Moai were constructed by a much larger group than the Europeans encountered, that would clear up some of the mystery surrounding the island. But it would also raise more questions. How, for instance, did the population fall so quickly in the few centuries between the statues' construction and first contact with Europeans? One theory is ecocide, which happens when an area is exhausted of its resources faster than it can replenish them.

The mystery of how the towering monoliths were transported across the island after they were built still remains. The indigenous people told Dutch explorers that the Moai walked themselves, an explanation an MIT professor put to the test when he designed a 2000-pound sculpture that could be shimmied long distances. But despite the numerous theories, hard evidence related to the figures' origins remains scarce.

[h/t Newsweek]

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