UF’s Randell Research Center
Explore an ancient culture in your own backyard
Florida has an abundance of history and all you need to do is look in your own backyard. The University of Florida’s Randell Research Center is a special place—where I’ve enjoyed the solitude, history, mosquitoes, ecology, heat, archaeology and sunsets for more than two decades—on the north end of Pine Island at Pineland. Randell Research Center is a 67-acre archeological site that is a program of the Florida Museum of Natural History, which is located at the UF campus in Gainesville. The center’s motto is “As We Learn, We Teach”—and teach it has, for more than 25 years. The site was once home to Native Americans known as the Calusa. These ancient people first started living there 2,000 years ago and inhabited the village for more than 1,500 years. The Calusa constructed shell mounds more than 30 feet high, and also an amazing canal crossing Pine Island. In 1895, well-known Smithsonian archeologist Frank Hamilton Cushing visited the site and measured the canal at 30 feet wide and 6 feet deep. The Calusa lived off the rich estuary of Pine Island Sound and their diet consisted primarily of fish and shellfish. My first experience visiting the Pineland site was in 1996. The weeds were high and in some places they were over my head. Cattle roamed the acreage, which is now a part of the Randell Research Center. There was a locked gate with a few picnic tables behind it and sometimes the key would find itself somewhere other than where it was supposed to be. On most Saturdays, the gate was open. There were talks and interpretive educational walks concerning the people who once fished, made art, carved canoes, buried their dead and lived on the ancient mounds. Today, there are an on-site classroom, restrooms, well-groomed trails and a shop with excellent books on the archaeology and research about the findings over the last 30 years at Pineland. A mile-long interpretive walking trail tells the story of the Calusa. The path starts by leading up to a large shell mound— where you can overlook the remaining small portion of the Calusa-constructed canal that was made centuries ago. Following the trail back down the mound, you make your way past gumbo limbo trees and over a small wooden bridge into an open expanse of solitude. The next stop leads atop my favorite mound, known as the Randell Mound. The view from this mound looks out
over Pine Island Sound, 5 miles to the west into the Gulf of Mexico. Next, the trail heads back east to an area just above sea level—where you can learn about something that I find most intriguing: In a 1992 wet dig, archeologists discovered a papaya seed dating to A.D. 50. It’s the only papaya seed recorded from that time period in North America. They also found a chili pepper seed from A.D. 50, which is the only chili pepper seed found east of the Mississippi River from that era. The furthest part of the walking trail leads to the back of the acreage to the largest burial mound in Southwest Florida. At one time, this mound was 30 feet high and 300 feet long and had a moat around it. A part of the mote can be seen today. Recent studies of the plant life on the burial mound document a saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) to be 500 years old. Nowadays the weeds are not as high as they were in 1996 and the gate is open seven days a week, from sunup to sundown. The picnic tables remain—and the learning and teaching flourish, because Randell Research Center’s motto is as strong as ever. To find out more information, visit floridamuseum.ufl.edu/rrc.
Capt. Brian Holaway is a Florida master naturalist and has been a Southwest Florida shelling and eco-tour guide since 1995. His boat charters visit the islands of Pine Island Sound, including Cayo Costa State Park, Cabbage Key, Pine Island and North Captiva.
Randell Mound offers a lovely view of Pine Island Sound west into the Gulf of Mexico.