Tall Tales

El­e­vated na­tive shell mounds kept home­own­ers cozy, pro­vided a view from above

RSWLiving - - Explore - BY ANN MARIE O’PHEL AN

There’s a rea­son Florid­i­ans choose to live in high­rises. It was a lifestyle Na­tive Amer­i­cans prac­ticed for cen­turies. Shell mounds of­fered those liv­ing on them pro­tec­tion from the el­e­ments and other oc­cur­rences― the taller the bet­ter. “The shell mounds also of­fered [the peo­ple] a great view over the Pine Is­land Sound and its en­vi­ron­ments,” says Cyn­thia L. Bear, co­or­di­na­tor for pro­grams and ser­vices at the Ran­dell Re­search Cen­ter in Pineland, which is on Pine Is­land where Na­tive Amer­i­can shell mounds are stud­ied. Shell mounds pro­vided pro­tec­tion for Calusa homes above wet ar­eas, as well as “pro­tec­tion from storm surges, and they were a place to catch bet­ter breezes,” adds Bear.

Ran­dell Re­search Cen­ter (pro­nounced ran-dell) staff dis­cov­ers and re­ports the ar­chae­ol­ogy, his­tory and ecol­ogy of coastal South­west Florida. It is part of the Univer­sity of Florida. Ran­dell re­searchers study the na­tive Calusa who lived in the area for about 1,500 years. The cul­ture van­ished nearly 300 years ago. The tribe had a com­plex cen­tral­ized gov­ern­ment, cre­ated art­work, con­structed a canal sys­tem and had an or­ga­nized reli­gion. They also fished for food, trav­eled by dugout ca­noes and col­lected

Along with the shell and burial mounds, Re­search Cen­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tors have found an­cient pot­tery shards, tools, dec­o­ra­tive ob­jects, Span­ish-de­rived glass, seeds and other or­ganic ma­te­ri­als.

shells for tools, uten­sils and even jew­elry. One Calusa vil­lage was in Pineland where the Ran­dell Re­search Cen­ter is lo­cated. This is also where the Calusa Her­itage Trail now lies, which is a 3,700foot in­ter­pre­tive walk­way where vis­i­tors dis­cover an­cient canals, along with the burial and shell mounds. Although the in­ter­pre­tive signs posted along the trail make a self-guided tour easy, group tours are an op­tion. Thanks to steps and handrails, the shell mounds can be eas­ily climbed. The mounds of­fer spec­tac­u­lar views of Pine Is­land Sound and the Pineland site it­self.

The orig­i­nal heights of the mounds var­ied from 25 to 30 feet, how­ever, they are di­min­ished due to ero­sion and weath­er­ing. “The mounds were also re­duced in size by the re­moval of shells by the wagon load, for road build­ing pur­poses, and for fill­ing in low ar­eas of the site for agri­cul­tural pur­poses,” Bear says.

When vis­i­tors stand atop the mounds, the ques­tion as to how the mounds were made of­ten comes to mind. It is be­lieved that the Calusa used catch-alls wo­ven from plant ma­te­ri­als. “The bas­kets were likely the con­tain­ers used to gather liv­ing shells, in­clud­ing uni­valves such as light­ning whelks, Florida fight­ing conchs, crown conchs and bi­valves such as oys­ters and clams,” says Bear. She adds that the meat of shells be­came part of Calusa meals, while the empty shells were added to the mounds or turned into us­able ob­jects.

In ad­di­tion to the shell mounds, there are sand burial mounds, par­tic­u­larly the Smith Mound, which is in a public area man­aged by Ran­dell. “We are not sure how many peo­ple are buried in the Smith Mound, but it is more than one,” says Bear, not­ing it’s the Smith Mound be­cause in the 1920s Cap­tain John Smith, one of the area’s ear­li­est mod­ern in­hab­i­tants, pre­vented the de­struc­tion of the mound. The rea­son why the Calusa buried their dead in mounds is un­cer­tain.

Along with the shell and burial mounds, Re­search Cen­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tors have found an­cient pot­tery shards, tools, dec­o­ra­tive

ob­jects, Span­ish-de­rived glass, seeds and other or­ganic ma­te­ri­als. “Among the most sig­nif­i­cant in­for­ma­tion learned from our ex­ca­va­tions is the role of a chang­ing en­vi­ron­ment on the peo­ple who lived here,” says Dr. Wil­liam Mar­quardt, cu­ra­tor of South Florida Ar­chae­ol­ogy and Ethnog­ra­phy and di­rec­tor of the Ran­dell Re­search Cen­ter, a com­po­nent of the Florida Mu­seum of Nat ural His­tory.

Re­cently ex­ca­vated at the site were well-pre­served seeds and net ma­te­rial dat­ing back 1,400 years. The ex­ca­va­tions will con­tinue to shed more light on the once pros­per­ous Calusa, who by the mid-18th cen­tury were gone. Skir­mishes with Spa­niards and their dis­eases likely de­stroyed the cul­ture.

When vis­i­tors stand atop the mounds, the ques­tion as to how the mounds were made of­ten comes to mind.

A gift shop/book­store (below left) is a nice op­tion. Trail iso­la­tion (below right) of­fers a peek at Calusa life, as do an­cient canals (bot­tom left) and lush set­tings (bot­tom right) along the Gulf’s back bays.

The Calusa Her­itage Trail is on Water­front Drive in Pineland. It is a 3,700-foot in­ter­pre­tive walk­way. There is a sug­gested do­na­tion.

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