UF’s Ran­dell Re­search Cen­ter

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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.

In­ter­pre­tive sig­nage on the mile-long walk­ing trail at the Ran­dell Re­search Cen­ter pro­vides vis­i­tors with the his­tory of the Calusa, who in­hab­ited the area more than 1,500 years ago.

Ran­dell Mound of­fers a lovely view of Pine Is­land Sound west into the Gulf of Mex­ico.

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