PHARR — Police said a Texas university determined bones found at a construction site earlier this week are likely those of a Native American and could be about 400 to 500 years old.
A construction crew found the remains buried about four feet deep Monday in the 1300 block of West Ridge Road.
The University of North Texas Center of Human Identification examined the bones, but the cause of death and gender could not be determined, Pharr police said in a news release Friday.
Centuries ago hundreds, if not thousands, of Native Americans populated the region, said Jack Keller, regional director of Texas Archeological Society South Texas. He is also the owner of Los Fresnos-based Southern Archaeological Consultants, Inc.
“We normally don’t find those things very often because the agricultural development in the Valley has pretty well destroyed all of them,” he said of such remains.
The permitting process that would likely follow is long and involved if the remains are found to be of historical significance, he said.
Keller had not seen the bones discovered in Pharr for himself, but said — in general —the Texas Health and Safety Code comes into play if a coroner determines they are more than 50 years old.
The remains, found in an undeveloped area of southwest Pharr, were buried in a lot where the existing Brook Ridge retirement community plans to expand its facilities.
Initially, police said a preliminary report from a forensic pathologist found the bones might have been buried about 60 to 100 years ago.
The Texas Health and Safety Code states the owner of property where an unknown cemetery is discovered must stop construction that would disturb the cemetery until the remains are removed under an official order.
The legal definition of a cemetery includes a place where there are “one or more graves.”
The law also requires the removal of all human remains or other associated burial items at the site and states they must be reburied unless an authorized official or next of kin approves otherwise.
Whoever discovers an unknown cemetery is required to file notice of its location with the county clerk, who in turn sends a copy to the Texas Historical Commission.
Attempts to reach the Texas Historical Commission were unsuccessful Friday.
“This was probably one of the most heavily populated places in Texas at any rate because the river provided a certain degree of access to water and natural resources,” Keller said of Native Americans living in the region hundreds of years ago. “We don’t know very much about them because they didn’t leave an awful lot of permanent remains.”
The Native Americans here — often referred to as Coahuiltecans, though they were not a single tribe — were small family groups who may have spoken different languages, he said.
Keller said Spanish explorers noted at least 40 seasonal hunter-gather settlements stretching from the Gulf of Mexico more than a dozen miles north along the riverbanks.
Eventually, the Native American population here dwindled to zero when they were exposed to diseases that they had no natural resistance, such as smallpox and measles brought by settlers, Keller said.
However, the Comanche tribe populated the area as late as 1530, he said. Spanish land grants spanning from Weslaco to Zapata County also brought a Hispanic population to the area around 1550, he said.
Most native people who could be tied to the recently discovered remains are likely “culturally extinct,” but a tribe has the final say so in what happens if a connection to the bones is established.
“They certainly have a right to remains of their ancestors and all these things should be treated with a degree of respect,” Keller said.