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.
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.
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.
Ortona is an enormous 500 acre+ town site and ceremonial complex, located on the Caloosahatchee River, west of Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida. It is located on the southern edge of Glades County. The modern name for the site is Italian and was given by early real estate speculators. Archaeologists currently do not know what the citizens of this community called it.
Ortona’s primary period of occupation was 300 AD- 150 AD, but (probably) Calusa People continued to occupy the site up until the 1600s. The period of greatest growth was between 500 AD – 800 AD, after which Wakata (to the east) became the dominant town of the densely populated Lake Okeechobee Basin. Ortona contains mounds and earthworks in forms that predate by 300-500 years similar architecture elsewhere.
North Americans just don’t usually think of their indigenous peoples as having sophisticated, regional societies, public works or long distance trade. Perhaps the Hollywood portrayals of Plains Indians has created too much of a stereotype. Mexicans and Central Americans, of course, take pride in their pre-European heritages. They are not surprised when they hear that the Mayas built some canals or that the Purepeche interlaced Michoacan with roads.
Archaeologists currently believe that the indigenous peoples of Florida did not have beasts of burden. Several types of dogs were kept for hunting, companionship or meat, but no evidence of them pulling loads has been found to date. There were no horses or oxen in Florida from the end of the Ice Age until the arrival of Spanish colonists in the late 1500s. As yet, no evidence has been found that manatees or dolphins pulled canoes. That left two options for transportation of bulk goods, canoes or human porters.
The Fort Center Mounds archaeological site was the first ancient Native American community near Lake Okeechobee to be studied thoroughly by contemporary, professional archaeologists. It was the last major archaeological project for Archaeologist, William Sears. ((Memorial for William Hulse Sears (1909-1996) Society for American Archaeology.)) For at least two decades, many of Sears’ peers dismissed his interpretation of the site as being “off the wall” and considered him a kook. However, in recent decades work by other archeologists have confirmed his interpretation and pushed back the occupation of Fort Center even further.
One of the most unusual examples of Native American architecture ever created was a mortuary complex at Fort Center, constructed around 200 AD. From the complexity and uniqueness of the complex, it is clear that it was “designed” and built according to the plans. The temple compound included a chevron-shaped earthen berm with rounded ends, a terrace for elite residences, a pond, a “sacred garden” for growing corn, a wooden platform for funerals, a conical mound veneered with shells imported from the coast, and a mortuary temple for cremating human remains.