People and Community Research

Oldest human remains in Puerto Rico expand knowledge of island’s roots

The remains from the Ortiz site, Puerto Rico’s oldest burial ground, were carefully analyzed by a University of Miami bioarcheologist and an undergraduate student researcher, revealing cultural insights from thousands of years ago.
Puerto Rico
Archeology students Chelsea Nielsen, right, and Jessica Joseph, left, excavate an area near the Ortiz burial location in March 2019. Photo: Courtesy of William Pestle

Thirty years ago, a private contractor unearthed a collection of human remains, along with tens of thousands of other artifacts, from the Ortiz site, what would prove to be the island of Puerto Rico’s oldest burial location. 

The artifacts from the site wouldn’t be analyzed until recently when that 35-box collection landed in the possession of University of Miami bioarcheologist William Pestle, associate professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

Pestle, who specializes in the study of human skeletons from archaeological sites, has spent the past four years delicately investigating the bones, some dating back nearly 4,000 years, using a fine-grained approach. A considerable addition to what was previously known about the earliest people of Puerto Rico has been revealed according to Pestle’s peer-reviewed study recently published in the PLOS ONE journal, entitled “Reconsidering the lives of the earliest Puerto Ricans: Mortuary Archeology and bioarcheology of the Ortiz.” 

“Through colleagues I got connected with Daniel Koski-Karrel, the archaeologist hired to direct the excavation in 1993, because he knows that I work in the part of Puerto Rico where this material came from,” said Pestle, who had permission from the Puerto Rican government to do this work. “In consultation with the government of Puerto Rico, we were able to broker a deal, where the material would be able to be studied by not just me but my students. And then it would go back to Puerto Rico.” 

Though the remains were poorly preserved, Pestle was able to reframe and uncover a deep past of some of the earliest people from southwestern Puerto Rico, a region known today as Cabo Rojo. The study provided critical insights into burial practices, which suggest multiple generations were buried in a single area and that they ate a diet consisting of plants and fish. 

“Obviously, we try to approach such a study as respectfully as we can, understanding that we are dealing with the bones of people who were once alive and were people’s family members,” said Pestle. “With that in mind, our goal was to try and extract as much information in a scientifically sound manner.” 

Joining him to conduct this revealing research was undergraduate student and co-author Elizabeth Perez. What began as an elective course for her turned into her newfound passion. 

“I took introduction to archeology as an elective, and I really enjoyed my time in that class,” said Perez, who entered the University as a marine affairs major. “From there I immediately added on anthropology as a major.” 

During the pandemic, Pestle and Perez dedicated hours into cautiously investigating the contents of the boxes. Piece by piece, the pair was able to reconstruct the remains to find out the age and sex of the individuals before moving on to more advanced analyses that told them what they may have eaten, where they might have been born, how long they had been alive—a crucial part of any archeological study. 

Despite more than a century of archeological research on the early inhabitants of Puerto Rico, there are still large gaps in the knowledge of the island’s Indigenous peoples. While the first inhabitants are believed to have come from South and Central America to Puerto Rico as early as 4300 B.C.E., there are few well-studied early sites. In their new research, Pestle and Perez were able to date the remains from the Ortiz site to be as early as 1880 B.C.E., making them the earliest directly dated burials from the island and contributing significantly to the accurate understanding of the island’s first inhabitants. 

“Anything that we know about the precolonial history of Puerto Rico, we know only from archeology. And one of the things that’s really interesting about working on the island is that there is an immense public desire for knowledge about their deep past,” said Pestle, who is married to a Puerto Rican woman—the couple has two sons. “Telling that story is a big responsibility and I take it seriously. This is not just about the science but what the science can tell us about people.” 

Perez, a Cuban American, said her family was ecstatic to learn that she was working in the Caribbean. Because there is a generalized notion that all archeology is classical archeology, and that she would be going away to Europe or Greece. 

“I think a lot of people just don’t realize that your local area does have an important and relevant culture. And that’s why I think smaller fields, like Caribbean archeology, are so important—especially when they have a history of colonialism,” said Perez. “We’re finally starting this movement to rewrite the narrative and reconstruct our original views of what we’ve originally been taught about these places.” 

Pestle said the anthropology department at the University is always looking for ways to get their students involved in research and was lucky that this case presented itself. 

“I feel good about the future of archeology,” said Pestle, referring to the amazing students he has mentored throughout his tenure. “It’s very rewarding to not only do the work we’re doing but also train the next generation.” 

Perez will be graduating from the University this spring and is planning to attend the University of Hawaii at Manoa for her Master of Arts in Anthropology. 

“I never expected to come to UM and to be an archeologist,” said Perez. “My time with [Will Pestle] has shaped my academic experience so much.” 

From May through June, Pestle will be traveling to Puerto Rico with 19 students to begin a new excavation project just a few miles away from the Ortiz site. The landscape at the new location is made up of shell mounds and is possibly the place where—thousands of years ago—people would come back to shore after fishing. 

“I’m expecting it will go well but we won’t know what we will find until we do the work,” said Pestle. “That’s part of the mystery of archeology.”