By Angie Francalancia
Human remains were discovered during the demolition of a house in the 900 block of South Ocean Boulevard last month, so the Delray Beach Police Department was called in to investigate.
When it was discovered that the bones were old, the medical examiner was called. When his office discovered just how old those bones might be, they called in archeologists.
It’s just the most recent evidence that Henry Flagler didn’t get here first.
The bones are likely the remains of ancestors from either the Seminole or Miccosukee Indian tribes, the experts determined.
For a short while, Delray Beach police treated the site where excavators were tearing down a house as a crime scene, stringing it with yellow tape; but within hours, they determined that even if the person had been killed, it wasn’t an investigation they’d be undertaking.
“We’re not investigating it as a homicide,” said Officer Jeff Messer, the department’s spokesman. “I’ve heard all kinds of stories about how old the bones could be. If that holds true, that would be an amazing history lesson for us.”
When the medical examiner took a look, the investigator had a hunch the remains were older than the 75 years that mark his jurisdiction, so a professor of anthropology from FAU was called in. He said they likely predated not only Flagler but also the Seminole Indian Wars and perhaps even modern history.
“He was able to determine that they were prehistoric,” said Harold Ruslander, spokesman for the medical examiner’s office. According to the police report, a skull and femur bone were the first bones uncovered by the construction crew 4-5 feet below the surface. According to a police department spokesperson, a pelvis and several other bones were also uncovered.
While it might be unusual to find a human body buried on your property, finding prehistoric human remains along Florida’s coastal ridge isn’t all that uncommon, said state archaeologist Ryan Wheeler of the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research.
“People have lived in Florida for something like 12,000 years, and they’re all pretty much still here in one form or another,” he said. “I’m not quite sure how many reports (of human remains) we’ve had this year, but lately, the average has been about 20 reports per year.”
At the height of the construction boom a few years ago, the department was averaging one call per week, Wheeler said.
“American Indians lived in Florida for a very long time, certainly in Boca, Highland Beach and Delray areas,” he said. “It’s hard to say what time period they’re from. People lived in that part of the state at least 5,000 or 6,000 years ago, but there are sites in Miami that are probably 10,000 years old.”
Florida has a state statute to guide what happens when ancient human remains are discovered, he said. The statute requires that any skeletal remains be treated with respect. “Our role is to kind of assist the owner to make sure they comply with the statute,” Wheeler said. “Our preference is that the remains stay where they’re found.”
As the statute requires, representatives from both the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes that inhabited this part of Florida have been notified.
That doesn’t mean the owners can’t build a new house there, he said. After all, there was a house on the property prior to the demolition, “so people were living with these remains for many years. The intent isn’t to stop people from building their projects but to help people to do it in a way that allows the remains to be protected.”