Bear details the history, heritage and legacy of the Calusa
A fifth-generation Floridian, Cindy Bear knows a lot about the history of people living in Southwest Florida, In fact, her area of expertise — the Calusa Indians — dates back to an era long before any European settlers “discovered” the New World.
Last Friday, Bear, site coordinator for the Randell Research Center’s Calusa Heritage Trail, discussed a number of fascinating details about Calusa culture as part of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge Nature Store’s Friday Afternoon Lecture Series.
Her program, entitled “The Calusa & Their Legacy,” shared some details about the ancient civilization which populated the region some 13,000 years ago. One of the reasons so much of their history has been lost, Bear noted, was because the coastline they inhabited at the time is now under water. The estuaries of Southwest Florida only approached conditions similar to today between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago.
The Calusa, at the time of European contact (around 1500 A.D.), occupied approximately 50 “towns” across the region. They were ruled by kings, led into battle by war captains and directed spiritually by a head priest, Bear stated during her 60-minute presentation.
“These we fishing people who lived along the coast,” she said,” who occasionally went inland in order to hunt and gather supplies.”
Bear talked about the Randell Research Center, located on Pineland, where enormous shell mounds still overlook the waters of Pine Island Sound. Through excavations and investigations of the site, archaeologists have discovered remnants of ancient canals dug and used by the Calusa.
During on-site research of the shell mounds, scientists found historical “middens” — which she described as the “debris of life” — that have helped them understand more about the Calusa environment, customs and diet.
“When we find significant amounts of certain items in a mound, that gives us some very important clues as to what was happening at that time,” said Bear.
She explained that the Calusa had an extensive network of trading with other early tribes that settled across the southern portion of the United States, finding remnants of stones such as galena (found near modern-day Missouri) and quartz (from the Georgia and Mississippi area). Archaeologists also found papaya, chili pepper and squash seeds at the Pineland site, revealing a few details of what diet they may have had at the time.
Bear, who noted that the Randell Research Center will soon celebrate their annual Calusa Heritage Day, also suggested that these early Floridians resisted the arrival of European settlers, who insisted that the indians give up their religious practices. Diseases from early Spanish settlers and Caribbean refugees helped push the Calusa to near extinction by 1704. The remaining tribes were either enslaved, killed, or driven out of Southwest Florida by the middle of the 18th century.
“That is why so much of the Calusa history remains a mystery to this day,” she added. “We still have so much to learn about them.”
The Randell Research Center’s Sixth Annual Calusa Heritage Day is scheduled for Saturday, March 12. This popular event focuses on regional archaeology, history, and ecology with the theme this year being paleoethnobotany, the study of the use of plants by people who are no longer living.
Art, music and replicative technologies, as avenues to learning/education about Pineland’s heritage, will be included. Activities for children and adults alike will be provided, and food and beverages will be available. Admission is $5 per adult; children under 12 are admitted free. All proceeds benefit the education and research programs of the Calusa Heritage Trail at the Randell Research Center.
For additional information, call 239-283-2157.