A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Beneath the burger joints and bars of Florida's Gulf Coast lies an extraordinary archaeological landscape
A favorite topic of conversation among the guests at the Cabbage Key fishing lodge, 80 miles south of St. Petersburg, Florida, is the Jimmy Buffett song "Cheeseburger in Paradise." Island lore has it that Buffett wrote the song after eating one of the lodge's two-fisted cheeseburgers while admiring the spectacular view of nearby Pine Island Sound. Less remarked upon and probably unnoticed by most diners is the fact that the lodge itself sits atop a massive shell-and-earth Indian mound--an archaeological paradise rests beneath their feet.
Much more than home to one of the world's funkiest island fishing resorts, Cabbage Key is also a remnant of one of the rarest cultural landscapes in North America, the water world of the Calusa Indians and their Precolumbian ancestors, a people whose fishing prowess puts modern anglers to shame.
My first visit to that world was as an undergraduate student in 1966, when some friends and I hopped in a small motorboat and enjoyed a sunny outing to Mound Key, an island in Estero Bay on the Gulf of Mexico coast nearly 40 miles south of Cabbage Key.
That initial trip to Mound Key left me awestruck. Using millions of oyster and whelk shells, Precolumbian Indians had constructed tall, steep-sided mounds, ramps, and causeways. Nearby on the fringe of the small island, shell middens (ancient refuse piles) mark the former locations of Indian houses, some likely built on pilings above Estero Bay. Other middens could be seen in the interior near the mounds. Artificial canals, now clogged with mangroves, once led from the shallow waters of the bay into the village and what are thought to be canoe basins--parking lots for dugouts. A larger canal cuts into the heart of this Precolumbian Venice. In the sixteenth century, this was Calos, a vibrant Native American town of several hundred people.
Remarkably, Mound Key is one of dozens of similar sites along a section of the southwestern Florida coast that is only about 70 miles as the pelican flies, but which has four or five times that amount of indented coastline. From A.D. 800 into the seventeenth century this coast was dominated by the Calusa (said to mean "the fierce people" in their language). Though archaeologists have long known about the Calusa, thanks to information gleaned largely from accounts and letters penned by Spanish officials and Jesuit missionaries in the late 1560s, it's only in the last three decades that modern investigators have begun to unravel the secrets of these native peoples and their ancestors.
Jerald T. Milanich is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY and curator in archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History.