Could DNA link ancient remains in downtown Tampa to the living?

The discovery of 19th century grave shafts raises a fascinating question: If the remains are human, could researchers find their descendants?
Published November 30
Updated November 30

TAMPA — Researchers have made ancient discoveries in downtown before. But they’ve never made one like this.

This week Strategic Property Partners announced that it had found a number of unmarked graves believed to be over 150 years old just north of Channelside Drive. They were discovered at a construction site for the $3 billion Water Street Tampa entertainment district.

RELATED: Long-lost graves found at Water Street Tampa were no surprise

Archaeologists have only found the graves so far, but experts expect them to find human remains as they continue their excavation of the site — raising a new possibility in this era of complex DNA gene sequencing.

Could archaeologists track down the living descendants of the ancient dead?

“In theory, you can have that DNA sequenced as long as there is enough material to sequence,” said Tampa Bay History Center curator Rodney Kite-Powell.

Such a move would be unprecedented. Florida law painstakingly outlines the legal procedures for handling the discovery of unmarked human remains. The discoverer must immediately notify state archaeologists if the remains are over 75 years old. The potential remains near the Channelside development site would likely be part of the nearly 200-year-old Fort Brooke’s Estuary Cemetery, so the state is all but certain to get involved.

If it is confirmed that there are human remains, Florida officials would work with Strategic and its team of archaeologists to figure out how best to handle them. Strategic is the development company formed by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Cascade Investment, the personal wealth fund of Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, to oversee the Water Street Tampa project. The company worked with experts to plan for such a discovery.

First, using forensic evidence like nearby artifacts and dental structure, archaeologists would determine the deceased’s ethnic background.

Once the ethnicity of a body is identified, the state would reach out to local representatives of the same background. If a person is found to be of Native American descent, for example, the state would consult with officials from that tribe to learn how to best handle the remains.

There’s nothing in the law about DNA testing, however.

“That’s not ever been done by the state, to our knowledge,” said archaeologist Jason O’Donoughue, who works in the state Bureau of Archaeological Research. “We don’t have the finances to conduct that kind of research.”

However, if living relatives of the ancient dead could be located, O’Donoughue said, the state would get their opinion about how to deal with their relatives’ remains into consideration. In order to track down living relatives, researchers would have to run DNA samples through public genetic databases. It's unclear whether enough potential genetic material could be gathered from the Tampa graves to provide a usable sample.

A Strategic spokeswoman did not say whether the company would help pay for potential DNA tests.

BACKGROUND: Water Street Tampa uncovers graves from 1800s and more of city’s past

When modern researchers first discovered ancient remains in Tampa decades ago, it was technologically impossible to use genetics to find a living link to the past.

Kenneth Hardin, an archaeologist and the president of Tampa’s Janus Research, was on the team that made the ground-breaking discovery of early 19th-century native and American remains beneath the Fort Brooke Parking Garage in 1980. Even without the benefit of the complex DNA testing available to modern scientists, Hardin and his team were able to determine that the remains belonged to Seminole and early American soldiers and civilians who clashed during the Second Seminole War from 1835 to 1842.

Whether potential remains undergo rigorous genetic testing or not, Hardin said, the recent discovery of the Estuary Cemetery gives physical confirmation to something hinted at in historical records.

“We’ve been trying to put together this jigsaw puzzle all these years,” Hardin said. “Every time we find something like confirmation of the Estuary Cemetery, we have a better idea of, particularly, the features of Fort Brooke.”

Kite-Powell said the newly discovered graves could answer some questions about Tampa’s history. For example, historians know that soldiers of German descent stayed at Fort Brooke, but they’ve uncovered scant physical evidence of them.

Of course, the settlers of that early American dot of a military outpost were far from the first inhabitants of the area that is now downtown Tampa. Various civilizations have occupied the area for over 12,000 years, Hardin said, meaning modern Tampa was built atop a treasure trove of historical artifacts.

Over the years, researchers have found evidence of native burial mounds, underground coolers stocked with gin and even bathroom pits. (Those ancient bathrooms are particularly informative to historians. “People threw everything down there,” Kite-Powell said.)

But amid all the talk of bringing Tampa’s history to life, Kite-Powell said it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the people whose lives are being unearthed had their own triumphs and travails — and stories still untold.

“They died at a pretty isolated place,” he said. “Tampa was kind of the edge of the map. Their extended families weren’t here.

“We don’t want to lose sight of the fact that these were people."

Contact Kirby Wilson at [email protected] Follow @kirbywtweets

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