In 2016, Hurricane Matthew damaged many of the buildings in downtown St. Augustine, a city which has the distinction of being the oldest city settled by Europeans in the continental United States. That rich 450-year history has led to many archaeological discoveries in recent years as urban development has unearthed the skeletons of this storied city’s past.
Literally. A team of volunteer and University of Florida archaeologists were called in after an initial discovery of human skeletal remains under a shopping mall damaged by Hurricane Matthew. Those bones have been dated to between 1572 and 1586, making them likely the remains of some of the very first North American colonists. The remains were buried in the traditional Christian style of the time period, with their skulls facing east and arms crossed across their chests. University of Florida anthropologist John Krigbaum told First Coast News that these remains could offer an unprecedented glimpse into the lives of the earliest American settlers:
We can actually start to look at small pieces of bone and tooth. You can start to get access to diet. Are they eating a lot of fish, corn, wheat? This would provide clues as to what is going on in St. Augustine in the sixteenth century.
To add more mystery to this archaeological find, Florida news outlet First Coast News has now reported the further discovery of what could revolutionize our historical knowledge of the earliest American colonists. The ruins of a building were found underneath the same shopping mall as the skeletal remains, indicating that the remains could have been interred in a 16th-century church cemetery.
While the archaeologists haven’t published their official findings yet, they have indicated the ruins surrounding the human remains were once a parish church. St. Augustine’s official city archaeologist, Carl Halbirt, claims these are likely evidence of the first church to be established in America:
These are the first actual physical remnants of a 16th-century church in the U.S. There may have been churches earlier than that. However, we don’t know where they are.
Well, as long as we keep breaking ground for more shopping malls, fast food restaurants, and parking lots, we’re likely to find them one of these days.