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Fish Aplenty: Living off the Land and Lake

A vast variety of fish, fowl, mammals, deer, reptiles, and amphibians assured ample calories, although changes in water tables shifted hunting and fishing strategies on a seasonal basis. Hunting gear included bows and arrows, throwing spears (atlatl), and clubs. Fishing technology included lines, nets, entrapments, and weirs. Forays to the coast brought shark, shellfish, and other marine resources to the lake area. An archaeological assessment of animal bones at Fort Center indicates a high ratio of fish, but deer meat provided a large number of calories. Some historical records indicate the use of certain roots, possibly coontie (Zamia floridana, from which an arrowroot-like flour can be made), were important.

Tools were constructed from local materials such as wood, bone, and shell. Nets and baskets were made from plant materials, and pottery from local clays likely gathered from creeks and cypress ponds. A unique ceramic style and technology was developed by AD 800 (the time of Charlemagne in Europe). Large open vessels of fire-hardened clay with a scoured surface and chamfered (beveled) lips have been labeled Belle Glade Plain by archaeologists. These ceramic bowls allowed for the storage, cooking, and transportation of food. The same clay was used to manufacture distinctive platform pipes, some used most probably for public ceremonial smoking and some for private use. This pottery type is an important marker for indicating the extent of Belle Glade influence in locations across Florida.

Hunting and Gathering Your Meal
The ancient Belle Glade people hunted and gathered many different types of foods to prepare and eat. Hunting wild game required the use of bows and arrows and spears which were thrown using a spear thrower called an atlatl. A spear with a notch at the one end was attached to the atlatl. The hunter’s hand grasped the spear and atlatl and using the atlatl as an extension of the throwing arm, the spear was launched towards its intended target. Using the atlatl, a spear was thrown farther and faster than just by the hand. The spear would have been used for larger animals as well as the bow and arrow.

After an animal, such as a deer, was killed, it was then butchered. All parts of the animal would have been used for food and other necessities. The hide for clothing and bags, bones used for pins, fish hooks, arrow and spear tips, sinew for thread and for wrapping the arrows, spears, and knives, and many other tools and weapons.

While the men hunted, women gathered plant foods that included pond apples, coco plums, seagrapes, nuts and berries, roots including that of the coontie plant, and other plants. The root of the coontie required special processing because it is poisonous.

The indigenous coontie plant was once found all over south Florida. The ancient Indians gathered the root of the coontie plant to make it into flour for bread. They had to process the root carefully. It was prepared by cutting the root into small pieces. The pieces were then put into a mortar and pounded into pulp. Water was added to the pulp and then squeezed out into another container. This water contained starch that would later become flour. The starch settled to the bottom of the container and the water was skimmed off the top as the starch fermented. Once all the water was gone, the pasty-starch was dried in the sun to become flour. The Indians then made the coontie flour into bread. Seminoles and Miccosukees, who arrived in the 1700s from Alabama and Georgia, also used the coontie plant to make flour for bread.

This is a list of some of the foodstuffs gathered by the Belle Glade people.

Plant Food include: cocoplum, pond apple, saw palmetto, coontie roots, cabbage palm, Yaupon Holly, Prickly-Pear Cactus, Live Oak (acorns), and Hog-plum.

Animals include: Deer, raccoon, opossum, mole, fox squirrel, muskrat, cotton rat, grey fox, blue goose, black vulture, bobcat, turkey, rabbit, alligator, turtles, snakes, frogs, different varieties of fish, and freshwater mollusks.

As a whole, Belle Glade people generally did not eat birds. No evidence has been found at prehistoric sites in the Okeechobee area that the people ate wading birds such as ibises, herons, and egrets. It is possible that consuming these birds was a cultural taboo. Wading birds may have sacred to the Belle Glade Culture.

The Indians around the lake also used plant fibers to make their cordage (ropes and threads), clothing, baskets, etc., include: wire grass, switch grass, broadleafed plants such as Indian hemp, mahoe bark, strangler fig bark, sabal Palm Tree (frond, filaments, fiber from the trunk), century Plant, mulberry bark, bear grass, Spanish moss, cypress bark, and willow bark.

Tools of the Early Floridians
Since there are no deposits of chert (a type of stone that is good for making tools and weapons) to make tools and weapons in south Florida, the Belle Glade Culture people traded with other tribes for the stone. They also used wood, bone, and shell to manufacture their tools and weapons. Large shells such as conchs and whelks were made into dippers, cups, and hammers. Parts of the shell were used as an adz, celts, awls, or shell beads. Woodworkers made bowls and other objects from pine and cypress trees. Shark teeth were attached to wood or bone handles and used for cutting, carving, drilling, or mounted to wood handles as weapons.

Native people collected fiber, fur, and palm leaves from sabal palm trees to make twine and rope. These materials were twisted together in long lengths and used for weaving, to tie things together, and for nets. Twine was also made for Spanish moss and the bark of some trees.

All native Florida tribes used wood for a variety of objects. Probably the best wood workers, however, were the Calusa and Belle Glade Culture. Some of the finest examples of wood items were recovered at Key Marco, Belle Glade Mounds, and Fort Center. Objects excavated at these sites included extraordinary wooden items such as masks, statues, heads, weapons, bowls, wood posts, and other objects. They used shark teeth tools for fine finishing of wooden carvings. The teeth left distinctive groove marks in the wood. That is how archaeologists know what tools were used to make the object.

The south Florida tribes used large shells such as whelks to make many of their tools, utensils, and jewelry. A cup or dipper was made from the outer half of a shell. The inner column, called a columella, was made into an awl after the shell had been chipped away and the tip of the columella sharpened to a point. Holes were made to the outer shell and a wood handle inserted into them to make a hammer or cutting tool.

Shark and Barracuda Teeth
Teeth from sharks caught in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico were used for tools and jewelry. A hole was drilled into the tooth using another tooth or stone tipped drill. The shark tooth was then attached to a wood or bone handle either singularly or in groups. Barracuda teeth were also used the same way. Part of a barracuda jaw could be attached to a handle and used as a saw.

South Florida natives did not have chert, a type of stone, deposits to use to make into tools and other items. They would have had to trade with other tribes in north Florida where chert is found. Local south Florida tribes did have stones that they collected from rivers and streams to use as hammer stones. Hammer stones were used to make stone stools by striking another stone like chert. They were also used when making shell tools. Holes could be made to large whelks by striking the outer shell with the hammer stone. Small chert points could be attached to wood drills and used to make smaller holes in most types of material used by the Native Americans.

Bone and Antler
All Native Americans used bone and antler. They made bone knives, jewelry, pins, needles, fishhooks, and other every day items. Pieces of antler were also used to flake pieces of stone when manufacturing stone tools.

The ancient tribes of south Florida made dugout canoes from the trees growing in the area to travel their watery world. Every day items like spoons and bowls were carved from a variety of trees such as pine and cypress. The native people also made wood hammers or mallets from parts of the trees. For ceremonial purposes, wood masks and other ceremonial items were made and then painted with natural materials.

Ancient Floridians first used pottery about 2,000 B.C. The different groups of people all used some form of pottery, each with their own distinctive materials and decorations. The first potters found that clay alone was not enough to make pottery because as it dried or was fired the clay pot would crack. So they added a temper, something that would add structure to the pot. Potters first used fiber from palm trees or Spanish moss. This type of pottery is called fiber-tempered pottery. Hundreds of years later, sand-tempered pottery was made. For this type of pottery, native people added sand instead of fiber. Belle Glade people made their own distinctive pottery that archaeologists named Belle Glade Plain. This plain pottery had a smoothed or “tooled” surface. Ancient potters dragged a wood-scrapping tool across the surface of the ceramic bowl leaving drag marks on the pottery. Sand grains created the drag marks as they were pulled across the surface by the wood-scrapping tool.

Cordage and Weaving
Florida natives made cords, twine, rope, and sewing thread from a variety of plant fibers. They gathered a tan fiber from the palm frond of a sabal palm tree to make cordage. The palm frond could also be used by splitting it in to very thin strips. Sabal palm fur, found on the trunk, was used to make cordage, too. Once cordage was prepared it, Native Americans used it to make fishing nets and for weaving of rough fabrics. Fibers from other plants were also used to prepare cordage including Spanish moss, the inner bark of the mulberry tree, cypress, and willow. Nets were also made from these types of fiber. Shells were attached as weights and pieces of wood served as floats.

For more information:
Robin C. Brown. Florida’s First People. Sarasota: Pineapple Press. Inc., 1994.

Daniel W. Austin. “The Glades Indians and the Plants they Used: Ethnobotany of an Extinct Culture,” The Palmetto, 17(2):7-11. 1997.  (14 September, 2002).

Jerald T. Milanich and Charles H. Fairbanks. Florida Archaeology. New York: Academic Press, Inc., 1980.


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