Remnants of a Vanished Culture
In 1896, on Marco Island in southwest Florida, archeologist Frank Hamilton Cushing discovered an amazing wooden statuette of a panther six inches in height. In Cushing's words, it was "carved from a hard knot, or gnarled block of fine, dark brown wood. It had either been saturated with some kind of varnish, or more probably had been frequently anointed with the fat of slain animals or victims. To this, doubtless, its remarkable preservation was due."
As the head of the Pepper-Hearst Expedition, Cushing was in search of artifacts of the Calusa Indians who inhabited southwest Florida perhaps as early as 1450 B.C. Excavations on Key Marco (next to Marco Island) revealed an amazing quantity of tools, weapons, utensils, masks and wood carvings preserved in a layer of organic mud within a Calusa Indian shell mound.
Although more than 100 wooden ceremonial masks, statuettes, batons, and heads of animals such as a wolf, sea turtle, pelican, and alligator were found, the article that most fascinated Cushing was a wooden deer head. He wrote:
"This represents the finest and most perfectly preserved example of combined carving and painting that we found .... In form ... it portrayed with startling fidelity and delicacy, the head of a young deer (see below) or doe .... [The ears] were also relatively large ... fluted, and their tips were curved as in nature ... they were painted inside with a creamy pink-white pigment ... and the black hair tufts at the back were neatly represented by short black strokes of paint .... The muzzle, nostrils and especially the exquisitely modeled and painted lower jaw, were so delicately idealized that it was evident the primitive artist who fashioned this masterpiece loved, with both ardor and reverence, the animal he was portraying...."
The detailed carvings reveal the artistic and spiritual elements of the Calusa culture. According to Cushing, the three forks radiating from behind the eye of the panther statuette indicate a fierce or predatory animal. In contrast, timid or tame animals, such as the rabbit or the deer, bore a crescent shape carved on the forehead. There is some indication that the panther statuette may have been a fetish or perhaps a god of war or of the hunt.
The Calusa Indians, say archeologists, were hunters and gatherers. Under normal circumstances, hunters and gatherers lead a more primitive, nomadic lifestyle than societies which have developed stable agriculture. Yet early Spanish accounts indicated that the Calusa had a complex social and political organization, an idea reinforced by Cushing's discovery of sophisticated artifacts.
How did the Calusa have time to create intricate works of art and develop their complex political system? They inhabited the coastal regions of southwest Florida as well as the freshwater wetlands of the Okeechobee Basin. These two rich and diverse environments provided a surplus of food, meaning the Calusa could live in permanent settlements and also hunt seasonally in different areas. As a consequence of the abundant natural resources, the Calusa had the opportunity to develop a much greater social and political complexity and a larger population density than is typical of hunters and gatherers.
The coastal mangrove and estuary environments not only provided abundant food, it also gave the Calusa their main building material, shells. Many of the islands where Calusa remnants are found were actually built by them from oyster and whelk shells, some of which may have been discarded after eating the contents and some of which were brought to those sites specifically for building purposes. The empty shells were piled to create dry mounds in this swampy, flat environment. Bare shell mounds probably gave the Calusa relief from bugs and the daily inundation of the tides, and provided the only ground above storm surge during hurricanes. Over 100 such shell mounds mark the Calusa territory from Tampa Bay south to the Ten Thousand Islands.
Shell mounds were built in various shapes and sizes ranging from small middens (refuse heaps) to large islands up to 150 acres in size. Some were laid out in circular form, others in linear parallel rows, still others in a horseshoe or donut shape. Based on these varying forms, sizes, and artifacts found on them, the mounds served different purposes, supporting both permanent and seasonal villages and serving as locations for sacred temples and gathering places.
Examples of each of these shapes can be found among the Ten Thousand Islands in the northwest region of Everglades National Park. At 150 acres in size and approximately 20 feet above sea level at its highest point, Chokoloskee Island is the largest shell mound in the southeastern United States. It is now the site of the town of Chokoloskee, three miles south of Everglades City on S.R. 29.
Sandfly Island lies within the park about one mile offshore from the Gulf Coast ranger station in Everglades City. Sandfly Island is a 75 acre shell mound built in a donut shape with a narrow opening which allows water to flood the interior at high tide. It is believed that when the tide receded the Calusa stretched nets across the opening to catch fish and other marine animals.
What was the fate of the Calusa Indians? No reservations or villages of the vivacious and strong people are found here today. The Calusa were weakened and killed by diseases like smallpox to which they had no resistance. By the late 1700s the Calusa were no longer part of this dynamic wilderness.
Calusa shell mounds, scattered from the northwest corner of Everglades National Park and along the coast to the north, stand as monuments to their silenced culture. They also remind us that once extinct, no part of this ecosystem can be restored by human hands. Remembering the vanished Calusa, we renew our commitment to preserve habitat for the wild creatures depicted in Calusa art.
Marco Island, location of this find, is highlighted in red on the map found here.