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The Calusa People

During the 1500s and early 1600s, when Spanish explorers were first making contact with the indigenous inhabitants of the Florida, they made contact with a powerful nation on the southwest coast between Charlotte Harbor and Cape Sable.1 The first contact was made in 1513 by Juan Ponce de Leon, when he landed at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River in southwest Florida. His landing boats were attacked by Calusa war canoes, lined with round shields. Ponce de Leon’s description of the canoes was identical to murals of Chontal Maya war canoes in the Yucatan Peninsula. The region where most of its towns lay was in present day Charlotte and Lee Counties.2 Calusa village sites can be found along the western half of the Caloosahatchee River. Various Spanish accounts called them either Calus, Calius, Caalius or Carlos. Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, a Spaniard held captive by the Calusa in the 16th century, recorded that Calusa meant fierce people in their language. This may or may not be true. Kalos is the Muskogean root word for “star.”3 At the time of contact with Europeans, the Calusas had a rigid, hierarchal society.4 All power was held by the king, village chiefs, war chiefs and priests. Typically, all of the leaders were close relatives of the king. Leadership was based on descent from ancient founders of their society. Those not descended from the founding oligarchy were all commoners. This suggests that at some time in the distant past, outsiders from a more advanced culture had arrived in the region and set themselves up as the elite. The power of the elite seems to...

Big Gopher and Boynton Mound Complexes

The immensely rich archaeological heritage of South Florida is little known outside the southern tip of the Florida Peninsula. Perhaps least known are the large town sites east of Lake Okeechobee. Several have been studied by professional archaeologists and the large town sites are all now protected by some form of public ownership. The 143 acre Big Mound City and 12 acre Big Gopher Archaeological Zones are located in central Palm Beach County, Florida.1 They are ten miles east of Canal Point, in the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area. Nearby Big Gopher is one of the best-preserved earthwork sites in the Lake Okeechobee Basin and consists of linear ridges, crescents, mounds, and middens. Much of Palm Beach County was thinly occupied by the Jaega People, when the region was first visited by the Spanish in the late 1500s and early 1600s.2 In English, this ethnic name would be written Haega. They were linguistically related to the fierce Ais People living to the north. The Jaega were hunters, fishermen and gatherers.3 They produced relatively little pottery and lived in simple huts, woven from saplings and palmetto leaves. They foraged for Live Oak acorns, coco plums, sea grapes, palm berries, edible roots, and possibly cultivated a small sweet pumpkin called the Calusa or Calabaza Squash. The Jaega drank a tea, brewed from the cassina plant (Yaupon holly) which contains about four times the caffeine of most coffee beans. This is a custom that they shared with many tribes in the Lower Southeast and with the Upper Amazon Basin. Some contemporary archaeologists have credited the ancestors of the Jaega with building the...

Big Mound City Archaeological Zone

Big Mound City is the only site from the Belle Glade culture on the National Register of Historic Places.1 It was added in 1973 as an example of a Calusa ceremonial complex, but is now understood to have originally been constructed by the same ethnic group that built the Ortona and Wakate towns – probably ancestors of the Mayaimi. Even though its earthworks are about 1000 to 1500 years older than those of Fort Center, the architecture was extremely similar. Its final phase of occupation was probably by an ethnic group either related to the Tekesta or Mayaimi, but under the political domination of the Calusa. This large archaeological zone is located on a geographical boundary, where the Everglades portion of the Lake Okeechobee Basin meets the Pinewood Flats.2 It has been theorized that the location was either a convenient place for ceremonial activities or trading, perhaps both activities. The environs of this ceremonial site were flooded at least six months out of the year. The earthworks would have raised any temples or houses above the floodwaters. This is also an architectural trait of several cultures in the Upper Amazon Basin of Brazil and Peru. The similarity may be evidence of a cultural connection or mere coincidence. What really makes Big Mound City stand out among large town sites in the Southeastern United States are the paired earth berms that connect conical mounds of various sizes to a central crescent shaped causeway that even today is nine feet high and nine feet wide across the top. The earth berms form radians that seem to have astronomical functions, but to...

Muspa Culture, Key Marco and other Platform Villages

A cluster of islands on the Gulf Coast of Florida, immediately south of Naples, FL and southwest of Lake Okeechobee once held numerous mounds and town sites. Know as the Ten Thousand Islands Region, it contains the villages and mounds of an unidentified Archaic Period people, the Muspa Culture and the Calusa People, who absorbed the Muspa. The Muspa or Thousand Islands Culture in recent years has been considered a division of the Lake Okeechobee-Glades Culture.1 The oldest cluster of shell mounds, on what was formerly called Horr’s Island, date as far back as 4700 BC.2 Another mound there contains some of the oldest known mound burials (1400 BC) in North America. Horr’s Island was renamed Key Marco by real estate developers, but is not the same Key Marco where a platform village was found. It is located south of Marco Island in Collier County, FL. Most of the archaeological in the northern portion of the Thousand Islands have been long lost to real estate development. The few sites that have been excavated professionally yielded exquisite wood and shell art. To date, there is has been no explanation why the location became the earliest known location in North America for ceremonial mounds, permanent villages and burial mounds. Key Marco platform village Key Marco was a small island adjacent to Marco Island.3 In the 20th century, the two islands were physically linked together. Later Horr’s Island was purchased by real estate developers and renamed Key Marco. This causes great confusion, so this article will continue to call Key Marco and Horr’s Island by their original names. Both Marco Island and...

Wakate – Guacata Town

Around the year 900 AD, the provinces of the Calusa, Mayaimi and Tekesta in southern Florida merged into one political entity that was the scale of a nation.1 Almost immediately, the same styles of pottery were being produced in all three provinces, and the Mayaimi town of Wakate (Guacata in Castilian) began to grow rapidly. This archaeological zone is also known as Belle Glade Mounds. It is located in Palm Beach County, Florida. The location of Wakate was at the base of a peninsula that extended into the southeast corner of Lake Okeechobee. Canoes departing from Wakate could access all sections of the lake, plus traverse the extensive canal system in southern Florida. The Belle Glade Mound, which was excavated in the 1930s and gave its name to the Belle Glade Culture is on the southeastern end of the Wakate archaeological zone, west of the town of Belle Glade. At this same time that Wakate rose to prominence, a trading village was founded 450 miles to the north on a terrace overlooking the Ocmulgee River in what is now Macon, GA.2 That place is now called Ocmulgee National Monument. Over the following 250 years the trading village would grow to a megapolis of at least seven neighborhoods and 25 more satellite towns and villages. Creek Indian tradition is that the trading on the Ocmulgee was called Waka-te or Waka. The “te” is the Itza Maya suffix for “people or tribe.” During the 1700s and early 1800s, Waka was the name of a Creek town on the Chattahoochee River in Georgia.3 Many of the Chattahoochee River towns had formerly been...

The Chontal Maya or Putun Maya

The presence of crescent shaped temple mounds in the Florida Peninsula strongly suggests cultural contacts with Maya ethnic groups, who worshiped the goddess, Ixchel. Very few Florida archaeologists have been willing to suggest publicly that Florida, Mesoamerica and South America had direct cultural contacts. Those who did, were all ostracized by their peers. However, the linguistic and architectural evidence is overwhelming for contacts between illiterate Maya merchants and the indigenous peoples in Georgia – which is north of Florida.

Maya Cultural Traditions at the Ortona Archaeological Zone

One of the several arguments that Southeastern archaeologists have used to dismiss a direct cultural connection between the Southeastern United States and Mesoamerica is that architecture of the respective regions was different. The architecture of the largest and most sophisticated Maya cities WAS more sophisticated and larger scaled than in towns in the Southeast, but the same architectural elements could be found in both regions. The Mesoamerican pyramids were really earthen mounds veneered with stone in some civilizations, left as clay stuccoed mounds in others.

Use Of Tobacco Among North American Indians

Tobacco has been one of the most important gifts from the New World to the Old. In spite of the attempts of various authors to prove its Old World origin there can be no doubt that it was introduced into both Europe and Africa from America. Most species of Nicotiana are native to the New World, and there are only a few species which are undoubtedly extra- American. The custom of smoking is also characteristic of America. It was thoroughly established throughout eastern North and South America at the time of the discovery; and the early explorers, from Columbus on, speak of it as a strange and novel practice which they often find it hard to describe. It played an important part in many religious ceremonies, and the beliefs and observances connected with it are in themselves proof of its antiquity. Hundreds of pipes have been found in the pre-Columbian mounds and village sites of the eastern United States and, although these remains cannot be dated, some of them must be of considerable age. In the southwestern United States the Basket Makers, an ancient people whose remains are found below those of the prehistoric Cliff Dwellers, were smoking pipes at a time which could not have been much later than the beginning of our era.

Mississippian Symbolism at the Ortona Archaeological Site

Archaeologists working at the Ortona site in the late 1990s and early 2000s were astounded to find “landscaping” in the shape of the scepters carried by the Maya elite in the Yucatan Peninsula. Both a mound and a ceremonial pond were over 100 yards/meters long. The discovery has great significance for the understanding of how cultural ideas traveled around the Caribbean Basin and North America, prior to the arrival of European explorers.

The Urban Development Pattern of Ortona Archaeology Site

In the early 2000’s, the Ortona site was studied by archaeologists from several southern Florida universities under the direction of Archaeologist Bob Carr, Executive Director of the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, Inc.1 The Ortona Archaeological Zone received a flurry of publicity from articles in several major newspapers around the United States. It was designated a county park then promptly forgotten by most members of the archaeological profession.2 The park is open to the public, but is poorly maintained and contains very little information that would enable the public to understand the site. The park’s sandy trails are most typically used by recreational hikers and bicyclists. Ortona’s primary period of occupation was between 300 AD and 1150 AD, but (probably) Calusa People continued to occupy the site up until the 1600s.3 The period of greatest growth was between 550 AD and 800 AD. This is exactly the period when Classic Period Maya city states to the south exploded with population.4 This time of prosperity has been linked to ideal climatic conditions for agriculture in that region of the world. The Calusahatchee River is a large river that flows about a hundred miles from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico near Fort Myers. Early wooden dugout canoes were used in Florida to travel the Everglades, plus the many lakes of the region and along rivers. A canoe would travel on a river to Lake Okeechobee. From the lake one could select another stream or canal to continue a journey.5 Lake Okeechobee was a natural transportation hub. Trade from the east coast could cross the lake, go west on the Calusahatchee...

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