Archaeological terminology gets confusing to laymen as we move closer to the present. Archaeologists have placed the label of Glades Culture for South Florida, except around Lake Okeechobee, where it is now labeled the Belle Glade Culture. 1McGoun, William E. (1993). Prehistoric Peoples of South Florida. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press; p. 101. Originally, the Belle Glade Culture was divided into three periods by archaeologist Gordon Wiley. They were Transitional (1000 BC- 500 BC,) Belle Glade I (500 BC-1000 AD) Belle and Belle Glade II (1000 AD-1700 AD.)

More commonly accepted now by Florida archaeologists is the labeling suggested by archaeologist, William Sears. It contains four intervals: Belle Glade I (1000 BC -200 AD,) Belle Glade II (200 AD-700 AD,) Belle Glade III (700 AD-1300 AD) and Belle Glade IV (1300 AD -1700 AD.) 2Sears, William H. (1994). Fort Center: an Archaeological Site in the Lake Okeechobee Basin. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida.

Archaeologists working at the Ortona site modified Sears’ intervals to more close match the apogee and abandonment of towns around Lake Okeechobee. 3Carr, Robert S., Dicke, David & Mason, Marilyn. “Archaeological investigations at the Ortona Earthworks and Mound.” The Florida Anthropologist, Vol. 48, No. 4. December 1995. There are five periods. The end of Belle Glade III was moved to 900 AD and the end of Belle Glade IV was moved to 1150 AD. Belle Glade V lasted from 1150 AD to 1700 AD. Although not as well recognized by Florida archaeologists, this last system more closely matches paradigms in South Florida, especially as they are related to Ocmulgee Mounds in Georgia.

Cultural time periods in Lake Okeechobee Basin, assumed by this series

  • Belle Glade I Period – (1000 BC-500 BC)
  • Belle Glade II Period – (500 BC – 200 AD)
  • Belle Glade III Period – 200 AD – 900 AD)
  • Belle Glade IV Period – (900 AD – 1150 AD)
  • Belle Glade V Period – (1150 AD – 1700 AD)

The most unusual aspect of the Belle Glade Culture is that its people remained dependent on hunting, fishing, wild fruits, wild roots and intensively cultivated raised gardens throughout the entirety of its existence. No evidence has been found to date of large scale horticulture or the raising of domesticated dogs, turkeys and waterfowl as seen farther north in the Southeast. However, its towns were large and contained many communal structures, while the towns were interconnected by canals and raised causeways.

The geographical area of the Belle Glade Culture is defined as the Kissimmee River Valley, the primary drainage basin of Lake Okeechobee southward to the Everglades and the inland portion of the Caloosahatchee River during Belle Glade I and Belle Glade II. 4Johnson, William G. (1992.) “Part II: Archaeological Contexts: Chapter 11 Lake Okeechobee Basin/Kissimmee River, 3000 B.P. to Contact.” Florida’s Cultural Heritage: A View of the Past. Tallahassee, Florida: Division of Historical Resources, Florida Department of State; pp. 81-90. During Belle Glade III the geographical area included most of southern Florida then contracted in Belle Glade IV. What particularly distinguishes the Belle Glade Culture is the much higher permanent population density found within its somewhat vague boundaries.

It is extremely difficult to find information on the Belle Glade Culture town plans and artifacts. The Southeastern Regional Archaeological Center(SEAC) of the National Park Service in Tallahassee does not even include southern Florida on its map of important Woodland Period archaeological sites. Belle Glade I and II correspond to the Woodland Period. 5Southeastern Archaeological Center. Several of the large town sites have been studied by competent or even famous, archaeologists, but the archaeological reports are not published in national professional journals or the internet. Typically, the only public information about these sites comes from newspaper articles.

The text, concerning the Woodland Period in South Florida within the SEAC web site, can only be labeled as bizarre. One paragraph states, “The Lake Okeechobee/Kissimmee River basin of south central Florida saw the construction of major earthworks between 3000 to 1,800 years ago for horticultural purposes rather than as true burial mounds.” 6Southeastern Archaeological Center.

The next paragraph states: “Beginning around 2,000 years ago*, the Glades culture of south and southeast Florida represents a transitional culture from the Archaic. By 1,200 years ago, distinctive Glades pottery, shell tools, and bone tools appeared, remaining essentially unchanged until contact with Europeans in the sixteenth century. “ 7Southeastern Archaeological Center.

The SEAC web site does not mention the early dates of sophisticated earthworks in South Florida. In one paragraph it states that the people remained hunter-gatherers and did not cultivate crops. Another paragraph says that these people built horticultural earthworks. That’s a rather sophisticated activity.

The final paragraph states that the Lake Okeechobee remained an Archaic Culture for a thousand years after the Archaic Culture involved into the Woodland Culture in the Southeast. The paragraph then states that it took South Florida almost a millennium to evolve into a Woodland Culture . . . at the same time that other parts of the South were classified as Mississippian. The author or authors of these paragraphs obviously never visited any of the major South Florida sites.

After the web site was posted, a NPS staff member added a URL to link it to a web article on the Miami Circle. 8Southeastern Archaeological Center The Miami Circle is a precise 37 feet diameter foundation, precisely cut into limestone. It contains 24 rectangular footholes, also cut into the stone. Among artifacts discovered within the sediment covering the foundation were two mint condition stone axes. The axes were made from a rock that could be obtained no closer than the Georgia Mountains. The web site actually says Macon, GA but there is not basalt or greenstone near the surface in the Georgia Piedmont.

The majority of archaeologists believe that the structure dates from about 1,800 to 2,000 years ago (Belle II Period.) This is based on radiocarbon dating of timbers found in the sediment. 9Miami Circle, Wikipedia. No books have been written on this structure. However, a minority believe that the Miami Circle is much older. The wood in the sediment could have come from a reconstruction of the timber frame, not the original timber. How such a structure could be considered the product of American Indians with Archaic Period technology is not explained by the NPS.

Belle Glade I Period (1000 BC-500 BC)

Map of Important Woodland Sites

Map of Important Woodland Sites in the Southeast United States

The culture of the population living around Lake Okeechobee differed little, if any, from surrounding indigenous groups in 1000 BC. 10Johnson, William G. (1992.) “Part II: Archaeological Contexts: Chapter 11 Lake Okeechobee Basin/Kissimmee River, 3000 B.P. to Contact.” Florida’s Cultural Heritage: A View of the Past. Tallahassee, Florida: Division of Historical Resources, Florida Department of State; pp. 81-90. However, steadily from then until 500 BC, the population density became increasingly higher around Lake Okeechobee. At permanent or semi-permanent village sites, house platform mounds, raised beds for gardens, accretional mounds and garbage middens began to build up. They became landmarks for these villages.

The raised beds for gardens raise a serious question about the cultural level of the Lake Okeechobee people. Most archaeological texts and online references label them an “Archaic Culture” people or “hunters and gatherers.” Raised platform gardens are capable of producing a large volume of vegetables in a semi-tropical climate. The aquatic landscape of South Florida also created a dense animal population. It is quite likely that hunting and fishing were more efficient means of obtaining animal protein than penning and feeding domesticated animals in a soggy landscape. Could it be that their high population densities were made possible by these gardens and that archaeologists just have not identified the crops that they grew? If so, then the cultural label should definitely not be “Archaic.”

Maize (Indian corn) pollen was found at several occupation layers at the Fort Center archaeological zone on Fisheating Creek in Glade County, FL. 11Sears, William H. (1994). Fort Center: an Archaeological Site in the Lake Okeechobee Basin. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida; pp. 119-123. William Sears, the lead archaeologists at Fort Center’s excavations, interpreted the pollen to mean that maize was cultivated for an extensive period of time at Fort Center. He extrapolated the presence of maize in southern Florida, during a period when no maize was grown in northern Florida to suggest that the people of the Lake Okeechobee Basin were from South America. He did not explain why maize would have come from South America, rather than a much shorter distance from the Yucatan Peninsula. He also did not explain why pollen was not found from other indigenous tropical crops such as cassava, tobacco and beans.

Some anthropologists challenged Sears’ interpretation of the pollen with the belief that the pollen was the result of modern corn cultivation contaminating the samples. 12Morris, Hanna Ruth. “Paleoethnobotanical Investigations at Fort Center (8GL13), Florida” Ohio State University, Department of Anthropology, 2012. However, the pollen has also been found embedded in coprolites (fossilized feces) and wood surfaces that had been submerged in peat. 13McGoun, William E. (1993). Prehistoric Peoples of South Florida. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press; p. 73. Those locations could not have been contaminated by contact with modern pollen. The opponents then countered that chemical analysis of skeletal tissue did not find the chemicals associated with high consumption of starches. Therefore, maize was not an important food source.

There was an inherent barrier to cultivation of many indigenous crops in the Lake Okeechobee Basin. The soil is extremely acidic and contains high levels of aluminum. 14Morris, Hanna Ruth. “Paleoethnobotanical Investigations at Fort Center (8GL13), Florida” Ohio State University, Department of Anthropology, 2012. Members of the grass family such as corn do not thrive in acidic soils or soils containing high levels of aluminum. High levels of aluminum in the diet of mammals will stunt their growth and affect their ability to reproduce. For example, dairies in high aluminum regions must typically import their forage from other regions.

Thus, for maize to have been successfully cultivated, chemically altered soils in raised beds would have been required. At a minimum, large quantities of shells and wood ashes would have been required to reduce the acidity and raise the calcium levels of the soils. Were the soils that were chemically altered washed away by erosion? It is a possibility, but not proven by archaeological research, to date.

Did the scientists analyze the right skeletons? Were the bodies of the elite cremated or buried somewhere else? That line of questioning also applies to the presumed lack of agriculture in Lake Okeechobee town sites. Maya towns contained raised gardens, but the bulk of food that supplied the towns came from dispersed agricultural villages. Could it be that because so little of the South Florida landscape has been thoroughly surveyed by archaeologists, they have missed the locations where large quantities of food were grown? For example, were there floating gardens on Lake Okeechobee similar to the chimampas of the Aztecs? That certainly is a possibility, given the shallow depth of Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades and other bodies of water in South Florida.

There is another interpretation of the maize pollen. What if the maize was grown primarily to make an alcoholic beverage, in which the solids were filtered out? Would chemical analysis reflect occasional consumption of ethanol? That is a question that has neither been asked nor answered by the archaeological profession.

Belle Glade II Period (500 BC – 200 AD)

The population and architecture continued to grow around Lake Okeechobee after 500 BC, but a new form of architecture appeared – the circular ditch. 15Sears, William H. (1994). Fort Center: an Archaeological Site in the Lake Okeechobee Basin. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida. pp. 116, 178. The ditches were generally around six feet (2 m) deep and 20-30 feet (6.1-9 m) wide. The function or functions of the ditches have been subject to many speculations by Florida archaeologists, none of which include a cultural connection to the contemporary Adena Culture in the Ohio River Basin, which was also building mounds and circular ditches. A few of the circular Okeechobee ditches and earthworks have openings At some locations in South Florida, circles have been built with circles, but these clusters of circles are concentric.

Archaeologist William Sears suggested that the ditches had agricultural purposes, namely to lower the water table in order to make cultivation possible. 16Sears, William H. (1994). Fort Center: an Archaeological Site in the Lake Okeechobee Basin. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida; pp. 145, 147, 175, 178, 186. Having asymmetrical clusters of circles would seem to negate that function. The clusters of circles would also not seem probable if the ditches had a defensive function. The eastern opening on some of the circles suggests that they had astronomic functions. The nature of the ceremonies or astronomical activities within the circles is in the realm of speculation.

Another type of ceremonial earthwork that appears in the Mature Belle Glade Period is the linear earth berm that appears to mark vectors associated with astronomy. 17Sears, William H. (1994). Fort Center: an Archaeological Site in the Lake Okeechobee Basin. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida; pp. 6, 18. These berms are too narrow to have supported ceremonial activities on their crests. Interpretation of these berms will require astro-archaeological analysis of each structure.

Elsewhere in the Southeast

Permanent villages associated with fertile bottom lands began appearing on the Etowah, Chattahoochee, Ocmulgee and Oconee Rivers in northern Georgia around 400 BC. 18National Park Service, Etowah Valley National Historic District Nomination – 1975. Their locations suggest at least some agricultural activities. At this time, it is believed that construction of ceremonial mounds did not start until about 0 AD or later. In most locations there was no functional need for house platform mounds since the water tables were generally much lower than in South Florida within the interior of the Southeast. At the present time, no raised bed gardens have been identified in the interior of the Southeast that date from the Belle Glade I time interval. 19Morris, Hanna Ruth. “Paleoethnobotanical Investigations at Fort Center (8GL13), Florida” Ohio State University, Department of Anthropology, 2012. However, domesticated indigenous plants and possibly tobacco were definitely being cultivated.

Florida references and websites state that Fort Center contains the oldest known location of maize cultivation, north of Mexico. 20Fort Center As stated earlier, there is still no consensus among archaeologists that maize was cultivated in Fort Center. Secondly, the oldest known maize pollen in the United States was found at Lake Shelby in southern Alabama. 21Fearn, Mirian & Liu, Kan-bin, “Maize Pollen of 3,500 BP from Southern Alabama,” American Antiquity, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Jan. 1995) pp. 109-117. It was radiocarbon dated to 1500 BC, a thousand years earlier than the earliest maize pollen found at Fort Center in Glade County, Florida. That discovery has its detractors also; mainly claiming that the pollen of an indigenous grass was confused for archaic zea mais (Indian Corn) pollen. However, the detractors have their detractors and the authors of the original report stand by their original findings. It should be emphasized that neither the Lake Shelby, AL site nor the Glade County, FL site has revealed maize kernels. Identification of maize pollen will continue to be controversial because there is no consensus what archaic maize pollen looked like at all stages of its development.

Adena Culture in southern Ohio

The Belle Glade II Period exactly matches the time span of the Adena Culture in southern Ohio. Most early Adena earthworks consisted of circular ditches or circular earth berms. Over time conical mounds of varying sizes developed within some circles. The Adena People also built large conical mounds that were not ringed with circular earthworks.

Some Late Adena sites also contain the radial earthworks found at the Fort Center site. [See site plans.] There appears to have been a cultural connection between southern Ohio and southern Florida. Whether the same ethnic group was involved in both regions is a question that has not been answered.

Belle Glade III Period (200 AD-900 AD)

The Third Century of the Christian Era was a time of population growth in both Mesoamerica Southeastern North America. Teotihuacan in central Mexico was nearing completion of its major public monuments. 22Teotihuacan“. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Some had been under construction for two centuries. El Mirador was suddenly abandoned around 150 AD, but smaller Maya cities were thriving. 23Grainger, Sarah; [Reuters India] (3 September 2009). “Guatemala Mayan city may have ended in pyramid battle“. World News (Thomson Reuters). El Mirador was probably sacked by a enemy, possibly Teotihuacan from 650 miles away in the Valley of Mexico. It is known that around 200 AD, Teotihuacan placed one of its own nobility as king of the Itza Mayas in Chiapas. 24Des Lauriers, Gracia; proyecto Arqueologico Los Horcones: Investigating the Teotihuacan presence on the Pacific coast of Chiapas, Mexico. University of California-Riverside, 2007. The Teotihuacanos (Totonacs) continued to dominate Chiapas for the next 400 years. Many Totonac words entered the Itza language. 25Des Lauriers, Gracia; proyecto Arqueologico Los Horcones: Investigating the Teotihuacan presence on the Pacific coast of Chiapas, Mexico. University of California-Riverside, 2007.

Throughout most of the Belle Glade III Period, Cuba was still occupied by a primitive hunter-gatherer people known as the Guanahatabey. 26Rouse, Irving (1992). The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus. Yale University Press; pp. 20-21. They did not cultivate crops or make pottery. They were probably related to some of the primitive hunter-gatherer tribes in central and southern Florida. However, since very little is known about the languages of these peoples, either in Cuba or Florida, anthropologists will find it difficult to prove a connection.

Taino Arawaks began settling the coast of the eastern end of Cuba around 700 AD – 800 AD. 27Rouse, Irving (1992). The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus. Yale University Press; pp. 23-34. Other bands of Taino’s began arriving in the Bahama Islands between 500 AD and 800 AD. It is possible that small bands of Taino’s reached the coast of Florida during this period. So little is known about the pre-European history of east-central Florida, it is difficult to even speculate about its ethnic composition.

In northern Florida, Alabama and Georgia, some villages were evolving into town-sized ceremonial centers – particularly in the northern sections of Alabama (Copena Culture) and Georgia (Mandeville on the Lower Chattahoochee, Sweet Potato Village on the Middle Chattahoochee and Leake Mounds on the Etowah River.) 28Pluckhahn, Thomas J. “Woodland Period: Overview.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 22 August 2014. Web. 01 October 2014. Truncated, pyramidal mounds were being constructed in addition to dome-shaped burial mounds.

The beginning of the Belle Glade III Period coincided with the construction of the early Hopewell Culture Ceremonial Complexes in southeastern Ohio. 29McGoun, William E. (1993); Prehistoric Peoples of South Florida. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press; p. 101. These earthworks were quite different than those of South Florida. The early ones consisted of rectangular earthen enclosures that contained multiple dome-shaped mounds. Archaeologists have found numerous examples of ornate mica art in Hopewell sites. The original sheets of mica came from the Southern Appalachians. Such art has not been found at Belle Glade Culture sites.

It is difficult to generalize about the Belle Glade Culture from 200 AD onward. There were hundreds of villages and at least a dozen major towns, each with its own occupation history. Very few of the major towns of the Belle Glade Culture have been investigated by professional archaeologists. None of them have been completely excavated. There is probably much that is still unknown about the advanced cultural development that occurred from 200 AD onward. Therefore, the remainder of this series will focus on individual town sites that have been the most studied by archaeologists.

Between 200 AD and 900 AD, the population of the Lake Okeechobee Region continued to increase. 30Johnson, William G. (1992.) “Part II: Archaeological Contexts: Chapter 11. Lake Okeechobee Basin/Kissimmee River, 3000 B.P. to Contact.” Florida’s Cultural Heritage: A View of the Past. Tallahassee, Florida: Division of Historical Resources, Florida Department of State; pp. 81-90.Canals and causeways that served individual communities were interconnected to form a regional transportation system. Anthropologists estimate that hundreds of miles of roads, raised causeways and canals were eventually constructed between the towns and villages. It was eventually possible to cross the Florida Peninsula in a canoe or by walking. There were no beasts of burden other than humans, so canoes were the most efficient means to transport bulk goods.

Footnotes:   [ + ]

1. McGoun, William E. (1993). Prehistoric Peoples of South Florida. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press; p. 101.
2. Sears, William H. (1994). Fort Center: an Archaeological Site in the Lake Okeechobee Basin. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida.
3. Carr, Robert S., Dicke, David & Mason, Marilyn. “Archaeological investigations at the Ortona Earthworks and Mound.” The Florida Anthropologist, Vol. 48, No. 4. December 1995.
4, 10. Johnson, William G. (1992.) “Part II: Archaeological Contexts: Chapter 11 Lake Okeechobee Basin/Kissimmee River, 3000 B.P. to Contact.” Florida’s Cultural Heritage: A View of the Past. Tallahassee, Florida: Division of Historical Resources, Florida Department of State; pp. 81-90.
5, 6, 7. Southeastern Archaeological Center.
8. Southeastern Archaeological Center
9. Miami Circle, Wikipedia. No books have been written on this structure.
11. Sears, William H. (1994). Fort Center: an Archaeological Site in the Lake Okeechobee Basin. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida; pp. 119-123.
12, 14, 19. Morris, Hanna Ruth. “Paleoethnobotanical Investigations at Fort Center (8GL13), Florida” Ohio State University, Department of Anthropology, 2012.
13. McGoun, William E. (1993). Prehistoric Peoples of South Florida. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press; p. 73.
15. Sears, William H. (1994). Fort Center: an Archaeological Site in the Lake Okeechobee Basin. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida. pp. 116, 178.
16. Sears, William H. (1994). Fort Center: an Archaeological Site in the Lake Okeechobee Basin. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida; pp. 145, 147, 175, 178, 186.
17. Sears, William H. (1994). Fort Center: an Archaeological Site in the Lake Okeechobee Basin. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida; pp. 6, 18.
18. National Park Service, Etowah Valley National Historic District Nomination – 1975.
20. Fort Center
21. Fearn, Mirian & Liu, Kan-bin, “Maize Pollen of 3,500 BP from Southern Alabama,” American Antiquity, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Jan. 1995) pp. 109-117.
22. Teotihuacan“. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
23. Grainger, Sarah; [Reuters India] (3 September 2009). “Guatemala Mayan city may have ended in pyramid battle“. World News (Thomson Reuters).
24, 25. Des Lauriers, Gracia; proyecto Arqueologico Los Horcones: Investigating the Teotihuacan presence on the Pacific coast of Chiapas, Mexico. University of California-Riverside, 2007.
26. Rouse, Irving (1992). The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus. Yale University Press; pp. 20-21.
27. Rouse, Irving (1992). The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus. Yale University Press; pp. 23-34.
28. Pluckhahn, Thomas J. “Woodland Period: Overview.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 22 August 2014. Web. 01 October 2014.
29. McGoun, William E. (1993); Prehistoric Peoples of South Florida. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press; p. 101.
30. Johnson, William G. (1992.) “Part II: Archaeological Contexts: Chapter 11. Lake Okeechobee Basin/Kissimmee River, 3000 B.P. to Contact.” Florida’s Cultural Heritage: A View of the Past. Tallahassee, Florida: Division of Historical Resources, Florida Department of State; pp. 81-90.