Until recently, this distinctive and sophisticated Native American society was little known, except to the anthropologists and archaeologists who worked along Florida shores. Perhaps this is hardly surprising, since most archaeological sites and finds from the Calusa domain are at best unspectacular. We have long known that they subsisted off fish and molluscs, built canals and dwelt on shell mounds, some of great size. But it has taken all the remarkable sophistication of 21st century archaeology, combined with anthropological and historical research, to draw aside the Calusa historical curtain.
Fortunately, interdisciplinary teams of archaeologists, geologists, and biologists have descended on concentrations of Calusa settlements in recent years. Mound Key was a prime target for their fieldwork. They began with a LiDAR overview of the Key’s topography, then conducted a geophysical survey, using ground penetrating radar, of the two major mounds to map subsurface features. Environmental coring revealed climatic changes; AMS radiocarbon dates provided accurate chronologies for long-buried structures; sediment samples supplied botanical and zoological data. The 51 hectares of Mound Key form a complex tapestry of mounds, middens, canals, watercourts, and other features, created by intensive human activity that modified the island in significant ways. Mound 1 reached its current height around AD 1000, with the erection of a large building on the summit that developed over the centuries into the imposing structure used by chief Caalus during the 16thcentury. Spanish documents tell us that it was capable of holding 2,000 people. Excavations uncovered post holes and foundation trenches for a large structure about 25m long and 20m wide. Botanical samples revealed that much of the house was constructed from imported pine wood, a large-scale operation that would have involved organised labour. The structure was designed to impress. By all accounts, the Calusa supreme chiefs presided over a closely organised society with considerable social stratification. But how did their society and its domains achieve such complexity and prosperity? Just to build the chief’s house would have required large food surpluses of shallow-water fish and molluscs, which had to be eaten fresh, for they preserved poorly. A waterlogged world The southern tracts of the Florida peninsula, which formed the Calusa domain were a huge mass of freshwater that flowed sluggishly southward through a maze of salt grass and swamps. Dry land was in short supply. Calusa communities lived along a subtropical coastline with mild winters.
“The Calusa never lived through centuries of predictable food supplies.”
The Past | April/May 2021