ORLANDO — Rachel K. Wentz spent 13 years working as a paramedic for the Orlando Fire Department. In that time, she covered some of the area’s poorest neighborhoods, and saw some horrendous cases of violence, and some terrible injuries.
“I worked in bad neighborhoods, I saw a lot of traumatic injuries,” she said.
But that never prompted her to get out of this field. In fact, Wentz admits she was fascinated by the whole subject of injuries to the human body.
“We can see social interaction through traumatic injury,” she said. “Trauma speaks for us.”
Her work as a paramedic was good training, she said, for her second career – she graduated from Florida State University with a Ph.D. in anthropology, and today Wentz specializes in the analysis of human remains, with a focus on ancient disease and population health. She has done skeletal work in St. Croiz, England and the Ukraine, and has experience in forensics at the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory at the University of Florida-Gainesville.
She is also an author, and her experience as a paramedic and anthologist proved to be the perfect background, she said, for writing her nonfiction book “Life and Death at Windover.”
It covers a case that she has always found to be uniquely fascinating, and one that demonstrates how remarkable human remains are, and what they can tell us about life in the Sunshine State thousands and thousands of years ago.
“If you’d lived in Florida 7,000 years ago, think about it, you didn’t have air conditioning and you didn’t have bug repellent,” she said. “You can imagine how difficult life was.”
That’s why human remains offer something very much like a mystery or jigsaw puzzle, she said. Examine them closely, and they offer a treasure trove of rich history artifacts, Wentz said.
“The things we experience in life are readily displayed in our skeleton,” she said. “We take the skeletons and analyze them for pathologies.”
“Life and Death at Windover” got its start as Wentz’s master’s thesis, an analysis of fracture frequencies among the skeletal population at Windover, a development at Windover Farms in Titusville that offered anthropologists an amazing discovery.
In fact, Wentz – who gave a presentation on the book and the case during a speaking program at the Doubletree by Hilton hotel near SeaWorld resort on Saturday – called the case “one of the most important archeological sites in North America.” In an era when television shows like “CSI” and “Bones” entertain audiences by showing how forensic science can crack crime cases and solve mysteries, Wentz was actually covering the real thing here in Central Florida.
In 1992, a developer had hired a crew to began work on the property, and as one of the workers was using a backhoe to dig into a pond on the land, he discovered something: two human skulls. A little bit more digging, in fact, revealed that there were scores of skulls in that pond.
She said the contractor, Steve Vanderjast – who she interviewed extensively for her book – “thought he had stumbled across a murder.” He even brought the skulls to the attention of a Florida State trooper.
“He looked at it and said, ‘We only do car wrecks,’ “ Wentz said.
Assuming that bones buried in a lake indicated a fairly recent murder seemed like a good guess, she said, but it was an incorrect one.
“This was not a murder,” she said. “These were ancient bones, probably Native Americans.”
The bones were sent to a forensics lab in Miami, which determined that the bones were 7,000 years old.
“These bones found in a pond predated the Pyramids by 2,000 years,” Wentz said. “The teeth were highly worn down. This is typical of prehistoric populations.”
An anthropological crew got legislative funding to dig further in the pond, and literally had to suck the water out of it using pumps.
“They had to drain the pond enough so excavators could dig in it,” she said. But they discovered the moist conditions had kept the skeletons preserved for thousands of years.
“Those are the perfect conditions for skeletal remains,” she said. “They excavated 186 people from the base of this little pond. This is like an anthropologist winning the lottery.”
In fact, the dig unearthed the skeleton remains of a woman – and a baby fetus.
“She probably died in childbirth, and the fetus died with her,” Wentz said. “Not only did skeletons come out of the ground, but the artifacts they were buried with. One of the most astounding discoveries was hand-woven fabrics. They (anthropologiust) realized we are dealing with hand woven textiles that are 7,000 years old.”
Another discovery was even more remarkable.
“They found human brains, intact,” she said. “Some of the brains tend to be very well preserved from being in the water.”
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