Bringing myself back to the present, I realize that many things have changed here. Fish still swim abundantly in this water, but the dark-skinned fisherman can no longer be seen; nor can the child any longer be heard laughing. All that remains of the Calusa are traces of daily life found in the large shell mounds that exist on the shores of Southwest Florida. Only pieces of their history have been painstakingly excavated from the archaeological sites found on Pine Island, Mound Key, Estero Bay, and Everglades National Park.

Researchers hope to learn more about this extinct indigenous culture by studying the artifacts they left behind. They hope to gain more of an understanding as to what this culture, which was the predominant one long ago in this part of Florida, can teach us about the present, especially about environmental and ecological issues in this sensitive natural ecosystem.

Bits of shell and gravel crunch under my feet as I walk along the entrance to the Randell Research Center. Located at the Pineland Site Complex in Lee County, this research and education program is operated by the Florida Museum of Natural History. In 1996, Donald and Patricia Randell donated 53 acres of land to the University of Florida, and the Research Center was created, thus establishing a significant focal point for the study of the Calusa.

I approach the newly built visitors center, anxious to meet Dr. John Worth, an archaeologist and ethno-historian who coordinates the center's public-education programs and development. After some initial introductions, we begin a journey on foot through time along the Calusa Heritage Trail.

This 3700-foot interpretive walkway leads visitors through the “shell mounds” — among the most unique and intriguing archeological sites you will find anywhere — along canals, and in and around numerous other surprising features of this important Native-American site. Dr. Worth is a dedicated researcher and scientist with extensive knowledge about the Calusa, and a passion for telling their story. He explains to me that archaeology is not an end result, but rather a long continuing process. He also cautions me that despite our best efforts and best intentions, some pieces of prehistory may remain hidden forever. I wonder if this is a good or bad thing.

I am entranced with Dr. Worth’s narrative abilities, especially his talent for bringing the Calusa and their culture to life. Gradually I too begin to see them as real people who were once completely and very successfully integrated into this wetland ecosystem. Thanks to Dr. Worth, I no longer see the Calusa as sad statistics from the past; in me he has found captive audience.

With little experience in such matters, I begin to become aware that archaeology is not just a science of the mind, but that it is also a science that relies heavily on intuition. Archaeologists use their logic to decide when, where, why, and how to dig but often, Dr. Worth tells me, they just have to go with their gut feelings. And, as we discuss not only the Calusa but the art of archeology, I discover that there are rarely easy answers to the mysteries about ancient civilizations like the Calusa. I am also taken aback when I learn that archaeology can be as disruptive as it can be enlightening.

Despite our different academic backgrounds, Dr. Worth and I are both in agreement that there are many lessons to learn about life — both ancient and contemporary — and that many of these lessons lie just below the surface. And given the very integrated and shallow wetland environment of this part of Florida, there is much I learn about the Calusa just by examining surface features. I forget the oppressive heat as Dr. Worth begins to tell me the intricate story of the Calusa people and the land and waters they inhabited.

The Calusa, or “fierce people” inhabited the inner waterways of this area of Florida for about 1500 years until around the 1700s. They controlled most of southern Florida under their leader Chief Carlos. Their population numbers may have reached close to 50,000 when their civilization was at its height.

When Spanish explorers landed in this area in the early 1500s, they described the Calusa as “fierce” and “war-like,” and encountered heavy resistance. (I wonder at the reasons why the Calusa resisted the arrival of the Spanish and am reminded of the quote “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.”)

Juan Ponce de León is considered to be the man who “discovered” Florida. He also died of a wound from a Calusa arrow. Much of the information known about the Calusa are from the writings of the explorer Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda. In his memoirs, he wrote about his experiences, which included contact with the Calusa when he was shipwrecked somewhere close to the Florida Keys at the age of 13. Around 1549 he and his brother were returning to Spain when they were shipwrecked in the area, possibly as a result of a hurricane. The crew and passengers were rescued by the Calusa who subsequently enslaved them. Eventually everyone except Fontaneda was put to death. According to Fontaneda, his life was spared because he was able to interpret their commands that he sing and dance for them. He spent the next 17 years living among them and writing about their way of life.

The Calusa lived and thrived near the estuaries of the Caloosahatchee River, the “River of the Calusa,” nearby what today is Ft. Myers. And it was this unique estuary ecosystem that contributed to their very successful lifestyle which blended with the natural elements.

An estuary is a dynamic and fertile part of a river. As a freshwater river approaches the sea in its lower course, the salty ocean water and the fresh water mix. It is a mixed, somewhat contradictory, element but also a place of transition from land to sea. Protected from the turbulent forces of the ocean environment, estuaries are in-between aquatic places where unique and abundant forms of life can thrive.

The estuary environment, along with Florida’s subtropical coastal environment, provided an abundant food source for the Calusa. In addition, it was a complex natural environment in which the Calusa collected herbal medicines and materials such as palm tree webbing to make nets. Relying entirely on this rich environment, the Calusa also used spears and fish bone arrowheads to catch turtles, eels, and deer. For many of us today, the area may seem an inhospitable, often impenetrable, and exceedingly hot place to live. But for the Calusa, the necessities of life were close at hand. Although the primary work of the women consisted of caring for the children and the home, it was they who caught the abundant shellfish — crabs, clams, lobsters, oysters — along with the help of the children. And the remains of their labors can still be seen today.

The Calusa traveled in canoes made of hollowed out cypress tree logs through an intricate system of canals that they built using shells and sticks; an amazing engineering feat for people who were living directly from their local environment over 1000 years ago — before human beings elsewhere had developed stone tools. The climate afforded them the luxury of homes that had no walls, and the roofs were made of palmetto leaves. Built along the the canals they constructed, the houses were elevated on stilts, only inches away from their food source. It is believed by some that they traveled through the protected estuary network and as far as Cuba. There were even reports that the Calusa attacked Spanish ships anchored there.

The shell mounds that remain today are actually piles of refuse; the natural materials the Calusa used every day and then threw away. According to Dr. Worth, some of the most revealing information about these people and how they lived comes from these piles of refuse. Shells were central to their way of life; from them they made tools, utensils, jewelry, shrines, and ornaments. Environmentalist and conservation groups protect many of the shell mounds that remain today because they are a rich source of information. I find it fascinating that one of the principal activities of visitors to places in the area such as Sanibel and Captiva Islands is spending long lazy days collecting shells on the beaches.

Researchers believe that the Calusa had a fairly complex society. Because of the abundance of resources, they did not have to spend as much time hunting, gathering, or fishing as many other native tribes elsewhere did. Their's was not a migratory lifestyle; there was no need. And one can imagine how strongly they must have identified with this environment and how protective they must have been of it.

Being a far more “settled” people than other indigenous people, they therefore had more time to develop religious and political systems. The Calusa tribe was divided into nobles and commoners (and possibly a slave class). There is some suggestion that they even had an élite force of warriors. They also had a king. Evidence indicates that they believed in an afterlife, and had elaborate rituals which included daily offerings, processions of religious leaders, synchronized singing, and even sacrificial worship. The number three was a mystical number to them.

Like other native cultures, they had a hereditary political organization; leaders were not elected, they were born into their position. As proof of their high status, their leaders also lived on the highest shell mounds. It was also a patrilineal society; the eldest son inherited the power when the chief died. The brother of the chief would become the shaman, or religious leader, and the chief’s brother-in-law would become the warrior chief. It was a “family business” that makes me think of other contemporary political dynasties.

According to the beliefs of the Calusa, each person had three souls: one was the shadow, one was the reflection, and one was in the pupil of the eye. In their worldview, when a person died the soul in the pupil of the eye remained, but the other two moved into the bodies of animals. This cycle would continue; however it was a negative chain of evolution. The latter two souls would transmigrate from large to small animals. The soul was eternal, a continuing part of nature — and of life.

Although all that Dr. Worth showed me were really just traces of these people, I came to understand them as real human beings who “once were.” They impressed me as innovators in fishing and engineering, people that had faith in their gods, their government, their people, and their natural home. They were once like the rest of us. They laughed, loved, prayed, worked, slept, and ate. They cared for their loved ones, survived harsh environmental conditions, and continued to prosper for over 1000 years. They fought for what they felt belonged to them: their land, their families, their society, and their freedom. They fought and they lost. In the late 1700s, the Calusa people had almost completely disappeared because of diseases brought by the Europeans, and fighting between the European explorers as wellas that of rival tribes. A few Calusa escaped to Cuba, and archeologists are still searching for possible descendants.

All of this left me to consider the possibility of two truths in this story: that these people were truly as fierce as the Europeans described them; or that that the Calusa were protecting what they held most sacred. Perhaps they were who they were and did what they needed to in order to protect what they loved. Perhaps, like an estuary, the truth is somewhere in the middle. It is certainly buried in the tomb-like shell mounds of Southwest Florida.

As Dr. Worth explained to me, there is much more to be discovered. However, the excavation of shell mounds runs the risk of disrupting the very truth we want to uncover.

At the end of my time with Dr. Worth, and my time among the Calusa, I ponder the mysteries of this extinct people. Above me in the brilliant blue sky, a hawk cries. I look up. I know the Calusa still have much to tell us. They too once thought they would be here indefinitely. Perhaps their souls still are.

The Calusa Indians:
Shell People of the Estuary
by Stephanie Moreland

The water slaps the rocks on the shore of the estuary with a cadence that has been heard by human beings for over 2000 years. In my imagination, I hear the sounds of a child’s laughter, and see small dark hands splashing in the water. In my mind’s eye, I see a tall, bronze-skinned fisherman standing waist deep in the water. His long, straight black hair hangs around the finely sculpted features of his face. Creases form at the outer corners of his eyes and on his lips from long days of working in the sun. His lean, muscular arms strain under the weight of the net woven of palm leaves.

Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau

Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau

Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau

For more information

The Randell Research Center

The Ft. Myers/Sanibel Convention and Visitors Bureau

Specific information about Calusa history and genealogy:

The Calusa Indian History

Calusa-related attractions

The Calusa Nature Center
and Planetarium

Museum of the Islands

Calusa Indian Art

Calusa Indian Art,
Artifacts, & Anecdotes

More on Lee County Florida

The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum

Lee County Living

Unless otherwise indicated, photographs by Stephanie Moreland