May 14, 2012 -- The discovery of two skulls in a Florida backyard sparked questions of intrigue and murder when they were found in January, but now investigators say the origin of the bones is even more mysterious than they thought.
The two skulls, of a 10-year-old boy and older man, date to 1200 to 1400, and show signs of being from Peru or South America, thousands of miles and a millenium from Winter Garden, Fla.
"The mystery is how they ended up there," medical examiner Jan Garavaglia said today. "We don't have any way of finding out."
The skulls were discovered in January when a plumber installing an in-ground pool came upon a piece of bone and reported it to the police.
Garavaglia determined immediately that the bone was from the face of a young child, aged 10 or 11, and alerted authorities that because of human tissue found still intact on the bone, it could be a recently-deceased child, buried illegally. The skulls were found with shards of pottery and textiles and a scrap of newspaper dated 1978.
The bones, it turned out, had a lengthier history than the 30 years or so since they were buried in Florida. When x-rayed by the medical examiner's office, it was clear that the bones were hundreds of years old, and that the human tissue on the cheek of the skull had been mummified. The skulls featured an "Inca bone," a telltale sign of a human from the Incan culture of Peru, Garavaglia said.
"This was clearly a secondary burial site," she said.
Garavaglia enlisted the help of archaeologists and anthropologists from the University of Central Florida and Yale to try and trace the origins of the skulls. Researchers identified cloth items found with the bones as that of primitive slings and purses made of woven materials and non-human hair.
What the researchers cannot figure out, and Garavaglia says they probably will not figure out, is how the items came to buried in Florida.
Authorities suggest that the bones were taken from South America into Florida when transporting skeleton parts was a more acceptable practice; it is now against the law. A tourist with a unique keepsake, or a migrant with a relic from their culture, could have transported the skulls, she said.
"Back in the 1030s or 1940s, people would go on vacation and buy things like that, and maybe they buried them when they didn't want them anymore. Another possibility is that it used to be a migrant farm worker camp, and some cultures will bring part of their heritage with them when they leave. It could be that they were moving on and decided to bury it there," Garavaglia said.
The archaeologists and anthropologists will continue to research the bones, which will become part of published scientific studies. Ultimately, the skulls could be returned to Peru.
"It was certainly a departure from the norm," Garavaglia said. "When you hold something in your hand that is that old, from 1200, it's amazing. To think about the connection back in time, that you hold in your hand what that they held in their hand. Amazing."