The CalusaPeople of the Estuary
by William H. Marquardt, Ph.D.
South Florida was once the domain of the Calusa Indians, a powerful and complex society which had as its homeland the rich estuaries of southwest Florida. Using locally available materials wood, plant fibers, bone, shell, and sharks' teeth they fashioned ingenious tools: a saber made by attaching shark teeth with resin to a wooden branch, an axe made by fixing a large, sharpened sea shell to a wooden handle, palm-fiber nets that could capture fish in great quantities. And they painted, carved, and engraved, producing works of art that are known the world over.
The rich ecological diversity of the area they settled is as important a part of the story as the creative skills of the people themselves. The subtropical coastal environment of southwest Florida, where fish and shellfish were found in fantastic quantities, provided a year-round abundance of food. Game was plentiful. Deer, turtles, and raccoons were among the animals eaten by the Calusa. A dazzling profusion of plants provided foods, medicines, and materials for making canoe paddles and fishing equipment . Over time, the Calusa became a powerful and complex society while continuing to practice a fishing, hunting, and gathering economy. The Calusa were divided into nobles and commoners, supported an elite military force, and received gifts of tribute from towns and villages many miles away. They believed in an afterlife, and made daily offerings to their ancestors. Elaborate rituals included processions of masked priests and synchronized singing by hundreds of young women. The Calusa were among the last native Florida Indian societies to succumb to the consequences of the European invasion. Victims of warfare, disease, and slavery, they ceased to exist as a distinctive culture in the 1700s.
Pineland: A Key to the Past
One of the most important towns of the Calusa Indians was located at Pineland, on the northwestern shore of Pine Island. Today what remains is a 200-acre archaeological site occupied by the Calusa for over 1,500 years. Their enormous shell mounds overlook the waters of Pine Island Sound. Middens the remains of many centuries of Indian village life blanket the pastures and citrus groves. Remnants of an ancient canal that reached across Pine Island sweep through the complex. Sand burial mounds stand secluded and mysterious in the woods. Historic structures representing Florida's early pioneer history still stand at Pineland. Native plants characteristic of coastal hammocks, pine woods, wetlands, and shell mounds are in abundance.
Animals include gopher tortoises, osprey, pileated woodpeckers, bald eagles, white ibis, alligators, otters, and many others. The Pineland Site Complex is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Pineland Site Complex is of critical importance to Calusa archaeology for several reasons. Its waterlogged deposits preserve artifacts not found in dry sites. The remains of many centuries of Calusa daily life reveal the fascinating, complex world that existed before the arrival of Europeans. Pineland provides a key to understanding larger, global issues, as well. Pineland's accumulated deposits record sea-level fluctuations and perhaps even climate changes. Such fluctuations are of interest to scientists all over the world who study the earth's recent environmental history.
The Randell Research Center
In 1994, Patricia and Donald Randell donated 56 acres of the Pineland Site Complex to the Florida Museum of Natural History to establish a center for research and education in Florida's heritage and environment. This generous gift follows more than a decade of research and teaching by Florida Museum archaeologist Dr. William Marquardt and his team. Pineland hosted the successful "Year of the Indian" project in 1989-1992. Thousands of volunteers participated in the work. The project resulted in six museum exhibits in Lee and Collier counties, summer programs for children, hands-on classroom demonstrations and site visits for 5,400 elementary school students, training for 600 teachers, two books, and an award-winning video program.
Aside from the fascination of learning about past people, and the satisfaction of knowing more about our state's history, telling the story of the Calusa also helps us raise awareness of the richness and complexity of Florida's environments. As modern Floridians face issues of balancing development and environmental conservation, learning about the role these fragile ecosystems play in our lives is more important than ever before. The more we learn about Florida's past people and environments, the better prepared we will be to help make Florida's future.
Visit the Randell Research Center
Guided tours of the Randell Research Center at Pineland are available on a regular basis for both school children and the general public from October through May. For further information, write to Randell Research Center, PO Box 608, Pineland, Florida 33945.
Read Calusa News
For a free copy of Calusa News, write to Dr. William Marquardt,
Museum of Natural History, PO Box 117800, Gainesville, FL 32611-7800.