Native American Calusa of Florida
By Kelly Dean
I look up and there it is. No wonder the osprey are having a fit, circling and screeching, trying to be intimidating. Eeeek! Eeeek! Eeeek! It certainly grabs my attention. The occasional falcon tries the same trick, to no avail. I asked myself, “What the heck has them all upset?” I soon look up and the answer is apparent.
A bald eagle has decided to take position on “turf” that obviously belonged to the osprey – well, a tree actually. And like a gangster, he is going to stay. Sorry, he’s the Vito Corleone at the moment.
The bald eagle is only about 15 feet over my head – largely because I am standing on the same enormous shell mound upon which his tree is also situated. The tree is 50 feet tall and it is rooted about 20 feet up on a Calusa mound, thereby creating quite a vantage point. The other raptors are obviously jealous. In relatively flat Florida that kind of vista is rare without a lot of flapping needed.
But I get ahead of myself.
Such is only one of the surprises I find at the Randall Research Center in the Pineland area of Pine Island.
This is an area in southwest Florida where the Native American Calusa built their shell mounds and survived for 1500 years leading up to the European explorers. They perished over time, suffering the same fate as other Native Americans. But on this site, an advanced civilization existed.
The Calusa are descendants of indigenous people who had lived in the area for hundreds of years before Europeans landed. The first Native Americans in the area date back 12,000 years. The Caloosahatchee culture was fairly well established by 500 A.D. but was setting roots as early as 500 B.C. They centered their civilization around the fishing estuaries of Lee, Charlotte and Collier Counties – and east to Lake Okeechobee and south to the Florida Keys.
Fish and shellfish were key to survival and the shell mounds or middens were shellfish debris piles re-purposed as vantage points for their homes, generally for the aristocracy. The mounds, some 30 feet high, still exist and are preserved here at the research center.
There are Calusa canals and clearings where wildlife is naturally attracted. I saw a deep-colored blue heron, ibis, egrets, falcons, osprey, and of course that bossy bald eagle, all in a very self-contained area.
I sit quietly in this ghostly place inhabited by ancient people. It seems obvious that time continues to march on, whether we’re ready or not. It’s both comforting and sad how readily the earth reclaims what’s hers after we’re gone. She doesn’t need us. We need her. I want reach down and take a shell from the mound, just so I can take a piece of that special time with me. But I leave the shell alone. Maybe they’ll exist a while longer.