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