Builders tearing up the Sheraton Biscayne Bay hotel and a downtown parking lot in Miami to make way for condo developments found themselves face-to-face with the city's native past: a pair of ancient cemeteries, remains of the Tequesta tribe that once dominated southeast Florida.
"When Ponce de León got to Florida in 1513, this was one of the first groups he met," says Ryan Wheeler, the Florida state archaeologist. Historians know little about the Tequestas, whose last members migrated to Cuba in the mid-18th century. "These sites may allow a glimpse into their mortuary practices as well as health and disease," Wheeler says. One site, south of the Miami River, is roughly 2,000 years old; the other, north of the river, is 500 years old. Wheeler estimates that together they contain the remains of several hundred Tequestas.
The twin discoveries are just the latest fruit of a Miami ordinance that requires developers to conduct archaeological surveys on suspected prehistoric sites before completing new construction. Eight years ago, workers uncovered the Miami Circle, a 38-foot-wide bedrock slab dating from around A.D. 100. The circle may have been the foundation of a Tequesta ceremonial structure. With Miami real estate still booming, more of the tribe's history may soon start turning up.