Old Florida

Christine Rhone introduces some of the lesser-known antiquities of the USA


The work of anthropologist Louis Leakey turns the tables on our usual concepts of New World and Old. Worked stones in the Moiave Desert would indicate human occupation in North America 200,000 years ago, among the earliest anywhere in the world. By conventional chronology, however, the Paleo-lndians arrived in Florida some 12 to 15,000 years ago, where the first traces of human habitation date from roughly 2000 BC. By 600 BC, the mound-builders of the Ohio Valley were active, first the Adenans and then the Hopewellians. After 1000 AD, the moundbuilding culture of the lower Mississippi Valley became the most advanced north of Mexico. Through trade, the moundbuilding culture reached Florida. The degree of cultural influence from Central and South America is being debated: a glance at a navigation chart nevertheless shows several favourable ocean currents leading directly from these regions to the Florida west coast.

By the time of European contact, there were many tribes living in Florida, among which were the Apalachee, the Tocobaga, the Tequesta, the Calusa, and the Mayaimi, who had descended from Muscogean speakers of present-day Georgia and Alabama. The Timucuans, of different linguistic stock, had migrated from the Central Amazon region around 2000 BC. The constructions that the aboriginal Floridians have left include wooden sculpture of outstanding quality, hundreds of pyramid mounds, dozens of artificial islands, straight line canals cut for miles through the lowlands, standing stones, mysterious circular earthworks, and even an effigy island.

Many modern Floridians are living on Indian mounds without realizing it. Despite increasing awareness of the richness of pre-Columbian civilizations in North America, these mounds have been disappearing during the past century at an alarming rate. Some have been destroyed by treasure hunters looking for pirate gold. Others have been destroyed to provide materials to lay in caravan parks [1]. And while people who are actively interested in preserving and honouring Native American sites tend to favour the more famous ones, located in such areas as the Southwest, Ohio, and Vermont, those who would tour Florida for the same purpose are few and far between.


In the Lake Okeechobee region of central Florida are a group of mysterious earthworks. Six have been identified in that area, and two more on the east coast near the Miami River, but there were probably more. Their traces are easily visible on aerial photographs, but quite faint seen from the ground. They comprise three types of features: linear ridges, circularlinear earthworks, and circular ditches that are often associated with embankments.

The circular ditches vary in diameter from about 200 to 1200 feet. The only one to have been extensively examined is the Fort Center Circle. Based on Carbon 14 dates from it, the circular earthworks have been dated to 1000-450 BC, almost 1000 years earlier than the other two classes of earthwork. The circles have been interpreted as drainage ditches around zones reserved for rnaize cultivation. The South Florida Indians, however, are not supposed to have practised agriculture. It is argued that the earthworks were ceremonial because of their association with mounds and with related ponds that were repeatedly located in certain positions.

The West Okeechobee Circle is unique in that it has two concentric circles. These are associated with two sets of linear ridges. The ridges run in double parallel lines going east and south from the outer circle. The eastern ridges extend about 2400 feet, by far the longest observed by state archaeologist Robert S. Carr. The southern set is about 1500 feet long. Carr points out that, interestingly, the lines go straight through a variety of environments: grassy savannahs, ponds, and even an upland hammock [2].

It is notable that the placename Miami recurs in the state of Ohio as the Miami River and, somewhat confusingly, as the name of a university in Ohio. The meaning of the word is commonly taken to mean something like ‘great water’. The Maiami people of Florida inhabited the central part of the state around the huge Lake Okeechobee. The Miami River, where there were some short Indian canals, empties in the modern city of Miami.

Crystal River

The Crystal River Mounds are a 14-acre six-mound ceremonial complex, with two standing stones, located on a bend by the mouth of the Crystal River about 80 miles northwest of Orlando. The complex is believed to have been started about 200 BC and in use until about 1400 AD, when it was rather suddenly abandoned before European contact. For one and a half millenia it was an imposing ceremonial centre and a major necropolis. Evidence of several culture periods has been found within it. Today it is one of the best preserved mound complexes in the entire US. It is maintained as a National Historical Landmark with well-informed rangers and a small museum. I found one of the mounds, which is virtually unexcavated, to be a place of great spirit and inspiration.

The main temple mound is a flat-topped pyramidal mound of earth and midden material, now restored to a height of 30 feet, with a ramp, and dated to about 600 AD. It is assumed to have served as a high platform base for a temple. Much of its oyster shell content was removed to lay roads in a mobile home park, but the mound has since been restored. The view from the summit is splendid, overlooking the river loop both upstream and down. The Crystal River area is famous among skin-divers, who travel from afar to observe the many manatees, or sea-cows, that come there to breed. The second temple mound is longer and flatter, stretching 235 feet, with a ramp, and is surrounded on three sides by a moat-like earthwork. The mound remains virtually intact and unrestored, which may account for its special atmosphere. As many as 300 burials may occupy it. Growing on it are a number of live-oak trees covered with Spanish moss. This is a greygreen trailing plant, which hangs from the branches in long, thin veils, like silken ghosts draped in tattered cloaks. It was used by some peoples to make skirts for the women. A meditation on this mound is worth a journey of many miles.

The major burial mound, made of white sand and surrounded by an earthwork ridge, contained as many as 1,000 burials. The copper earrings accompanying some of the burials show trade exchange with the Ohio River area. This mound was extensively excavated by Clarence B. Moore around the turn of the 20th century. He was a Chicagoan who travelled through Florida on a houseboat investigating Indian sites. His methods were destructive, but his careful records form the basis of modern studies in Florida archaeology.

The two standing stones are the most enigmatic features of the Crystal River site. The erection of these approximately five-foot limestone stelae was dated by archaeologist Ripley P. Bullen to 440 AD. One, carved with the likeness of a human head, is the only engraved stela in Eastern North America. Remains of animal bones, charcoal, and chert chips were excavated from near its base. Controversy surrounds these stones. One reason is that the petroglyph has recently been vandalized: portions of a shoulder and arm have been added to the presumed figure of a human face. According to archaeologist Clark Hardman Jr., the Crystal River site is a giant calendar of sand, shell, and stone, with the function of marking solstices, equinoxes, and north-south star alignments. The stelae would be important components in the system and the inscribed face that of a sun god who faces the summer solstice sunrise [3]. Astronomer Ray A. Williamson, assessing Hardmants archaeoastronomy, considers his work on, Crystal River partly convincing and encourages further investigation.

Orientation of Temple Mounds

Around Tampa Bay are five impressive platform or temple mounds attributed to the Tocobaga Indians of the Safety Harbor period (800 – 1500 AD). Originally there were probably 15 or 20 of these steep-sided, truncated pyramids around the bay. All of them lay within a few hundred yards of tidal waters, five by the mouths of major rivers near the sites of villages. All but two were made of gradually built-up layers of sand and compacted varieties of shell up to 20 feet high. Most had ramps and were situated either north or east of a plaza, which may have been used for games. The mounds’ varying sizes suggest a variety of functions, but they do not appear to have been funerary, as very few burials have been found in or near them.

Six mounds were oriented to the cardinal directions. Four others deviated from cardinal alignment by 20 degrees or less. The ramps of four other temple mounds were aligned either north-south or east-west, which suggests that their associated mounds were oriented to the cardinal directions. The four largest mounds are located at 15-18 mile intervals along the bay.

The building style of these platform mounds resembled that of the Mississippians, whose additions of new layers to their mounds had ceremonial significance: new layers were added as the fire of the old year was extinguished and the new fire kindled and at the death of important individuals [4].

The Calusas

In the southern part of the peninsula were the Calusas, whose culture peaked from around 500 to 1000 AD, when most of the largest constructions on the west coast of Florida were made. This period coincides roughly with the peak of the Mayan civilization. Ripley Bullen states that there was contact around 500 AD between the Crystal River people and travellers from Veracruz or Yucatan. The Calusa people, whose terri tory was south and west of Lake Okeechobee, are of particular interest to anthropologists because they developed an intricate, highly organized society but were non agricultural. They lived off the bounty of the sea, travelling by canoe to Cuba and the Bahamas. Their chief married his sister and had other wives as well, and he commanded fifty tributary towns, with a trade and communications network that covered hundreds of miles. The Calusas were thriving at the time of the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th centuy. Their first encounter with the Europeans was in the person of Ponce de Leon, an explorer who had accompanied Columbus to the West Indies on his second voyage. Having searched for gold, slaves, and the fabulous spring of eternal youth in the Bahamas, de Leon landed in April 1513 on the shores of a place which he named Florida for the Eastertime Feast of Flowers. His men engaged in two days of intense fighting with Calusa warriors, during which he received an arrow wound that never healed and ultimately caused his death [5].

Calusa Art

The Calusas, who carved beautiful canoes, created some extraordinarily powerful wood sculpture. Only a few pieces remain. The Calusa masterpiece is of a Florida panther, an animal which is now almost extinct. The sculpture is well preserved, having been saturated with varnish or sacrificial animal fat and found among warrior and hunter accoutrements at Key Marco. The distinctive three-forked eye marking denotes predatory creatures and god-animal beings. This marking is duplicated in certain images from the Georgia Etowah mounds, a major center of the Southern Cult ceremonial complex, which influenced the Calusas for some time. Though only 6 or 7 inches high, it has the dignity of a colossus [6].

Canal orientation

The aborigines of Florida constructed a large number of canals, of which there are two main categories. The first includes relatively short, often narrow, usually linear canals that were built as part of a shellwork site. These canals were common. The second includes long, linear canals with excavated spoil placed along the banks, which varied in length from 1.5 to nearly 10 miles and in width from 8 to 30 feet. There were few of these. Outstanding examples are at Pine Island, Naples, and Ortona.

At Pine Island near Fort Meyers, a 2.6 ml long Calusa canal cuts the island from west to east, but not through the narrowest part of the island. It leads to another canal on the mainland, the Cape Coral Canal, which runs for some 9.6 mls and provides short-cut access to the Lake Okeechobee region. These canals are estimated to date from ca. 1000 AD to the European contact period.

The ends of the canals are associated with native sites. On Pine Island, the western end is marked by the Pineland site with huge shell mounds and the eastern by an important funerary mound that contained hundreds of burials. Between Pine Island and the mainland is a small shellwork island, Indian Field, which was topped by a large mound. The eastern terminus of the Cape Coral Canal was marked by Corbett Mound some ten miles away.

The Pine Island and Cape Coral canals were originally 30 feet wide, enough for the passage of two way traffic and double canoes. These were two canoes lashed together which could hold up to fifty men. F. H. Cushing reported in 1897 that there was a ‘midmost court’ within Pine Island with subsidiary canals that were associated with other mounds and ponds.

Use of these canals saved many miles on the journey from Pine Island Sound to the central Lake Okeechobee region. Besides the canals’ obvious advantages in facilitating distribution, communications, defense, and tribute, archaeologist George M. Luer has proposed axial significance among mound and canal features, which are apparently coeval: the north-south axis would run through Josslyn Island, Pineland, and the Howard Shell Mound, the east-west through several mounds: state-owned 8LL86, another on Useppa Island, more on Pineland, along most of the Pine Island Canal mounds to the Indian Field mound, and along the western half of the Cape Coral Canal. The intersection would be at Pineland, indicating its central importance. This could be one reason why the Pine Island canal was not built through the narrowest part of the island. Luer points out possible intra-site alignments among some earthworks at Pineland that are suggestive of solstitial and equinoctial sightings and proposes that the earthworks at Pineland might have served in part as a giant calendar [7].

Artificial islands

The Calusas built up and extended their land surfaces by means of compacting varieties of shells in alternating layers, sometimes using muck as a kind of cement. With time and weather, this created a very strong, solid surface. Conch shells were driven point inwards to build up foundations and to reinforce walls. Clam shells were used like tiles for facings, laid very close. Canal banks were built up with great regularity. A 12-foot high seawall, flat as a turnpike on top, was built up with conch shells around Demorey Key near Pine Island. This was recycling at a sophisticated level, since much of the Calusa diet consisted of shellfish, the combination of fresh and salt water in the local bays being ideal for shellfish to thrive vigorously.

The extent of the land reclamation is impressive. Some sites of built-up shell cover hundreds of acres with an average depth of ten feet. Entire islands were created, perhaps starting from a mangrove base or a submerged reef. In describing the heartland of the Calusa territory, early observer F. H. Cushing, whose name may be familiar through his pioneer work in Zuni anthropology at the turn of the 20th century, said that one island out of five was artificial within a fifteen to twenty mile radius of Key Marco. He specified that, besides what the Calusas built, there was very little inhabitable land. These shellwork keys were arranged like semicircular atolls. With the growth of vegetation and mangrove, they are indistinguishable at a distance from the natural lowlying islands, like big green buttons floating on the water, as an artist accompanying Cushing described them.

One of these artificial islands is Mound Key in the Estero Bay, now an archaeological site only accessible by boat. This islet was the seat of the Calusa leader Carlos, who ruled some fifty villages around. It covers 125 acres and is topped with four major mounds. The remains of a canal are still visible. This canal was oriented southwest to northeast and led to the centre of the island, where there was a lagoon with ramps leading to the temple mound. The chieftain’s mound was opposite [8].

Key Marco

If Mound Key, seat of Carlos, was the political center of the Calusas,Key Marco, located some 15 miles south of modern Naples, was their ceremonial center. They built three lagoons within this fifty acre shellwork island, and at least nine canals that led from the sea toward the island’s midpoint. About six of the canals ran from the northwest toward the center, and three or so from the southeast toward the center, so the island was not sliced into sections of equal size by the nine canals, but rather there were two sets of canals. The largest lagoon was connected to a canal that went to a major pyramid mound with a temple at its summit, from which one could get a view of the whole island [9]. Historian Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. says that at the base of this pyramid lay a court, flanked by water tanks and terraced gardens, and that Calusa ceremonies included the practice of human sacrifice.

A more appealing sort of sacrifice, this one practiced by the Timucuas, was described in 1564 by the French artist Jacques Le Moyne, who said that in late February, the people would take the skin of a stag and fill it up with the best of their root foods and other edibles. The stuffed stag would then be placed in a treetop facing sunrise and the people would offer prayers for increase and fertility in the coming spring season [10]. The Timucuas lived in the northeast, around St. John’s River and along the Atlantic coast, where Green Mound and Turtle Mound are not far from the present day Kennedy Space Centre.

Effigy Island

Of the hundreds of shellwork mounds and islands in Florida, one has been proposed as a giant effigy: Big Mound Key in Charlotte Harbour near Pineland, not the same island as Mound Key, seat of Carlos. This is a mound midden shellwork complex that covers over 15 hectares and rises about 23 feet high. It is not only an exceptionally large shellwork complex but unique in shape. Its bilateral symmetry and finger-like projections suggest the outline of a spider or an octopus, which is especially striking from the air. The finger ridges fan away from a central canal and face the direction of maximum fetch, which may have afforded protection from waves. There are at least nine of these finger ridges, running about 320 to 500 ft [11]. Much of Big Mound Key has been severely vandalized by people hunting for the pirate treasure supposedly buried there by the notorious Gasparilla. These neo-conquistadores have ploughed up as much as 30 percent of the island in search for gold.

Turner’s River Mounds

This group of Calusa mounds is a one-of-a-kind set. Near Everglades City, along Turner’s River, are some 28 midden mounds up to 12 feet high and 60 or 70 feet wide, made of layered shell, black swamp earth, and sand, dated to 200-900 AD. They run in regular rows perpendicular to the riverbank a quarter of a mile inland with consistent distances from mound to mound, a siting that suggests a carefully preplanned arrangement. The intervals could once have been convenient canals for canoes to offload catches of crustacea and fish. Farther up the river are more mounds that are probably related [12].

Seminoles and Miccosukees

The Florida Indian nations of today are the Seminoles and the Miccosukees, who are the descendants of several later waves of Creeks and Muscogean speaking immigrants from the Confederate states pushed southward by the encroaching colonists, after the aboriginal Floridian tribes had been wiped out by disease and genocide. In Florida they mixed with runaway slaves who had managed to escape from Georgia, giving them shelter and learning some African agricultural techniques from them. Some of these black refugees ‘disappeared’ into Indian culture, much as some of the surviving California Indians ‘vanished’ into Hispanic society toward the end of the rancho era.

The Seminoles used to make a thick, frothy tea from the leaves of the wild Yaupon Holly which contained a great deal of caffeine. The men would drink it in large quantities, very hot, and then vomit as a form of ceremonial cleansing. Warriors would hold the drink down to steel themselves for battle. This was called the Black Drink by the English and Asi by the Seminole Indians. When the Seminoles drank it, a young man would stand nearby and loudly cry the name of the god Yahola. Florida’s most famous Indian performed this so well that he was named Asi Yahola, the Black Drink Crier. His name was distorted by settlers to Osceola, which became known to all as that of a great leader during the bitter Seminole Wars ofthe 19th century and is now the name of a city.

The US federal government officially recognized the Seminole Tribe in 1958, but hesitated to do the same for the Miccosukees until 1962, after the frustrated tribe had sent a delegation to Cuba, where Fidel Castro had been quite happy to recognize them as a nation and even offered them a place to live. In Florida there are some 2,500 Seminoles and Miccosukees and four reservations, where principal sources of income are cattle ranching, bingo, tourism, and the sale of tax-free cigarettes. They are credited by Joseph Bruchac as the tribe who discovered the legal loophole for setting up Bingo operations on Indian reservations in the early 80s. More and more tribes are following suit. As the saying goes, ‘Gambling is the new buffalo’. In 1991 the Seminoles sued the state of Florida to open gambling casinos with a wider range of games on three reservations The casinos obviously bring in much-needed income to the reservations, but Bruchac believes that the Indians would do well to invest the revenue wisely, as the situation is bound not to last long.

The Dania reservation north of Miami has been the venue for major powwows, with tribal drum groups coming from all over the US and Canada to celebrate and compete in dance events. The Miccosukee reservation in the Everglades features a regular Arts Festival and intertribal pow-wows. Seminole and Miccosukee patchwork, used in quilts, jackets and skirts, is dazzlingly decorative.

Affecting Native Americans today are many complex issues. On the menu are uranium mining clean-up, sovereignty rights, cultural protection, and freedom of religion. The most widely broadcast report of prophecy and its fulfilment in recent history was the birth of a female white buffalo calf in 1994. To many Indian nations the calf, named Miracle, represents the return of the White Buffalo Woman, who gave her people the gift of the Sacred Pipe, showing them the Good Red Road and leading them in the right direction. Miracle’s birth heralds a new era of concord among the races, a renaissance of Native American values, and harmonious balance between humanity and the earth. Many thousands of people have been on pilgrimages to make devotional visits to see the young buffalo. Parents have brought their children to be named in her presence. A dying woman left her entire estate of $100 for Miracle’s maintenance.

Since 1994, Miracle has slowly turned light brown, then brown and is now partly black. This transition is echoed in the story of the White Buffalo Woman, who, as she was leaving, walked toward the setting sun and rolled upon the earth four times, each time her coat changing colour. The transformation of Miracle’s coat through all the possible shades natural to a buffalo is interpreted to indicate the inclusion of all peoples in the coming time of peace, for the hope that she has nourished in many hungry hearts is undiminished.


  1. Indian Mounds You Can Visit, I. Mac Perry, Great Outdoors Publishing Co., St. Petersburg, FL., 1993.
  2. ‘Prehistoric Circular Earthworks in South Florida’, Robert S. Carr, The Florida Anthropotogist, Vol. 38, No. 4, Dec. 1985.
  3. Florida Archeology, Number 8, 1995, Florida Bureau of Archeological Research, ‘Crystal River: A Ceremonial Mound Center on the Florida Gulf Coast’, Brent R. Weisman.
  4. ‘Temple Mounds of the Tampa Bay Area’, George M. Luer and Marion M. Almy, The Florida Anthropologist, Florida Anthropological Society, Inc., Vol. 34, No. 3, Sept. 1981.
  5. 500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians, Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., Random House, 1995, pp. 131-134.
  6. South Florida’s Vanished People, Byron D. Voegelin, Island Press, Fort Myers, FL, 1977.
  7. ‘Calusa Canals in Southwestern Florida: Routes of Tribute and Exchange’, George M Luer, The Florida Anthropologist, Vol 42, No 2, June 1989.
  8. 1000 Years on Mound Key, Rolfe Schell, The Island Press, Ft. Myers Beach, FL. 1968
  9. ‘Exploration of Ancient Key Dwellers’ Remains on the Gulf Coast of Florida’, F. H. Cushing, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol 35, 1897.
  10. Living the Sky: The Cosmos of the American Indian, Ray A. Williamson, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 1984.
  11. Culture and Environment in the Domain of Calusa, Ed. William H. Marquardt, Institute of Archaeology and Paleoenvironmental Studies Monograph No 1, 1992, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

Published in two parts: NE72 (Winter 1997), pp.13-17; & 73 (Spring 1998), pp.17-21

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