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Calusa Coast events celebrating Archaeology Month in Florida come to a close this weekend


In early 2020, important news for people who care about the history of Southwest Florida was about to drop: after years of research, a team of archaeologists from Florida and Georgia confirmed that the capitol of the indigenous Calusa Native American tribe and a Spanish fort were in fact on Mound Key in Estero Bay. However, in April 2020, this news was buried beneath an avalanche of health updates due to COVID-19.

With the pandemic momentarily on the wane, several local institutions joined together this March to finally celebrate this historic news.

Annisa Karim, operations manager of the Randell Research Center on Pine Island, part of the Florida Museum of Natural History, came up with the collaborative celebration.

"Really, we should be learning about how the Calusa lived here on the coast all year round, but March is a really good time to highlight the Calusa because it's archaeology month and it is because of the science of archaeology that we know so much about the Calusa," said Karim.

"The Randall Research Center would usually have something called Calusa Heritage Days. The Marco Island Historical Society, Lover’s Key, Koreshan, all of these places, would have different events, but really, we thought that because we got this somewhat new information that the texts that we read from the Spanish definitely said the Calusa were on Mound Key, as were the Spanish...We wanted to highlight it as a group."

"Together the Calusa lived in Southwest Florida.  They did not just live on Marco Island.  They did not just live on Pine Island or in Estero. They lived throughout Southwest Florida, and so as entities that are interested in educating the public about archaeology, we thought that together we should highlight our coast and how the Calusa lived on this coast. And that's really how we came up with the name Calusa Coast," said Karim.

The Calusa Coast events center around the discoveries uncovered by archaeologists and scientists from the University of Florida and the University of Georgia. The team used remote sensing, coring, ground-penetrating radar, and excavations to reveal the walls of Fort San Antón de Carlos, built in 1566 and home to Jesuit missionaries from Spain. The research also confirmed the Calusa King had a home on Mound Key that could hold up to 2,000 people. Early Spanish documentation described these structures, but their existence went unconfirmed until recently.

William Marquardt, Ph.D., curator emeritus at the Florida Museum of Natural History and former director at the Randell Research Center was a lead researcher into these discoveries before he retired. He said it's the job of archaeologists to second guess the written record until physical proof can be found.

"The good thing about archaeology is that it helps us to mitigate some of the biases of the historical accounts. There's always some inherent bias in an historical document. So we have to take that as a grain of salt and say that with archaeology we can maybe discover these things," said Marquardt.

"And it turns out over the last few years we have been able to to show that the many of the things that the Spaniards recorded were actually true: a house of the Calusa king, and the mission and the fort, which were also recorded by the Spaniards, but we've also discovered some other things that are not so obvious to the Spaniards to others, such as the water courts that we think were fish traps, and fish storage ponds and so forth so."

These additional discoveries involved elaborate fish traps where the Calusa used tides around the island to sweep fish in and then store them for future needs.

It was a unique feat of engineering that could only occur with a society that lived on the water, according to Karim.

"The Calusa are special in that they have taught us that a lot of engineering and really highly sophisticated construction was able to happen here long before we had our ways of doing things. You know, without big skid steers and bulldozers, they were able to construct and really alter their environment to their benefit, as humans do all over the world... and had these really cool engineered canals and water courts to hold fish and shellfish."

Marquardt echoes this sentiment since the indigenous population was not an agrarian society.

"Well, every indigenous group around the country has its own unique history and and accomplishments, but I guess what has interested archaeologists and anthropologists generally is that the Calusa managed to become very complex, politically complex," said Marquardt. "They had an established religion. There were engineers. They did a lot of things that you would usually associate with people who had an agricultural base, but the Calusa were not corn agriculturists. They didn't grow corn or maize or some of the other crops that were grown by, say, the Maya or the Aztec or the Inca.

"They were fishing people and people just can't imagine sometimes that that people who base their economy on fishing could manage to achieve so much or have such a a complex society. They were the controllers of all of South Florida. Mound Key was the capital of all of South Florida and Carlos was the king of all of South Florida. So that's a lot of accomplishment on a non-agricultural basis."

However, Marquardt said that the recent research only scratches the surface of what we can learn about the Calusa.

"I should emphasize that we have studied a very tiny, tiny sample of Mound Key," he said. "We think that there's so much more to know throughout Southwest Florida. So I hope that the people who come after me will continue the work and and discover even more things that we don't know now."

The Calusa Coast events culminate this Saturday at the Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium featuring a talk from Marquardt. He's not worried that the latest news about the archaeological discoveries is actually a couple of years old.

"One of the things I learned early on and dealing with the public in Southwest Florida is you have to keep telling the story over and over again, because new people come in and people forget stuff and it's just a natural cycle. It doesn't hurt to say something that we've said before in the area because people are here that didn't hear it before."

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