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Tuesday, November 2, 1999

Bones may be of Karankawa Indian

Counselor finds remains of man on Pita Island while kayaking Laguna Madre

By Darren Barbee


A skull, pieces of jaw and a few vertebrae discovered by a Flour Bluff kayaker are apparently the remains of an American Indian, Nueces County Medical Examiner Lloyd White said Monday.
   "We've had episodes in the past where somebody found bones that turned out to be somebody who was missing within the last year or so," White said. "That's definitely been ruled out here. This individual went missing a long, long time ago."
   White's examination Monday revealed the bones, which were found Sunday afternoon, belonged to a male believed to be between his late 20s and mid to late 40s. The skull was blackened by exposure to the salt water and soil and had barnacles growing on it, White said.
   The jaw's smooth, flat teeth suggest the man was an American Indian, possibly a Karankawa, White said.
   "The teeth are generally in good shape but ground flat and smooth as is typical of people who ate bread made with stone-ground meal," White said. "Grinding meal with stones gets fine grit in it, which acts as an abrasive if you eat bread made with that stuff."
   Pat Mercado-Allinger, state archaeologist with the Texas Historical Commission, said the site on Pita Island likely will be studied. She said the island may contain other burials if the remains are Karankawan.
   "There seem to be certain islands and certain landforms on the mainland chosen to inter many individuals," Mercado-Allinger said. "Those prehistoric cemeteries have yielded large number of individuals in the past."
   Bernie Shone, a counselor at Charter Hospital, kayaked across the Laguna Madre Sunday afternoon for a walk on Pita Island.
   The island is barren except for a cluster of oil tanks, the two largest visible from Boondock's bar, which is separated from the marina by a half mile of murky water dotted with sticks.
   While looking over the island and its wildlife, Shone said he noticed a symmetrical object stuck in the mud about a foot under the water.
   "I thought it was a tank, part of something cylindrical," Shone said. "I pulled it out and it was a skull. It had barnacles all over it."
   Shone took the bones back with him and turned them over to police because he wasn't sure he would be able to find them again.
   "I didn't know they were an Indian burial ground," Shone said. "I'm not an archaeologist, just a counselor."
   If the remains on Pita Island are Karankawan, the man buried on Pita Island may have arrived, like Shone, by boat or by wading. The waters in Laguna Madre were shallow hundreds of years ago, said Ed Mokry, archaeological steward for the Texas Historical Commission.
   The Karankawas followed seasonal patterns in which they hunted and foraged inland during the warmer months before camping on barrier islands to fish for clams, oysters or other food when it turned cold, Mokry said.
   The man found on Pita Island may well have been part of a winter fishing group camping on the 3,500-year-old island, Mokry said.
   In an era when life expectancy was 40 to 45 years, he may have met with ill fortune any number of ways, Mokry said.
   "Considering you have 20 to 30 individuals in a camp, it might be somebody who came down with some kind of sickness or, just guessing here, may have been struck by a stingray, developed an infection and died from that," Mokry said. "Or just died from old age."
   White said there was no evidence the skull had been damaged.
   Lore surrounds the islands found in Laguna Madre. There are tales that French privateer Jean Lafitte buried his treasurers on one of the barrier islands while visiting Corpus Christi in the early 19th century.
   Boondock's bartender David Guerrero said the area still has mysteries that remain hidden beneath the brine.
   "It's not a place you want to go swimming," he said.

Staff writer Darren Barbee can be reached at 886-3764 or by e-mail at

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