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Calusa Key, Florida . . . a island paradise that lasted 1800 years

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They only ate fish, shellfish and fruit

FORT MYERS, FL - (Examiner.com) - Around 0 AD a village was founded on an island near what is now Charlotte Harbor on the southwestern tip of Florida. It was just one of many small fishing villages that composed what archaeologists label the Caloosahatchee Culture. The village slowly grew in population and evolved culturally to the point that it was the capital and major population center for a province that covered much of southwestern Florida. By the 1500s when the Spanish arrived in Florida, the Calusa People occupied coastal towns and villages from Tampa Bay to the Keys, and also had villages about half the distance inland to Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Calusa were always dependent on marine life for the bulk of their nutrition. Various indigenous and cultivated fruits, such as papaya completed their diets. When explorer, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés visited the Calusa in 1566, the Spaniards were only served fish and oysters. Archaeologists studied the remains of table scraps at a former Calusa village on the southwest Florida coast. They estimated that 93% of the calories in those villagers’ diets came from seafood. Although the Calusa did cultivate several tropical fruits, no maize pollen has ever been discovered at a Calusa habitation site. The absence of corn cultivation and consumption sounds remarkably like the Toconac’s and some Huastecs of northern Vera Cruz State.

At the time of contact with Europeans, the Calusas had a rigid, hierarchal society. All power was held by the king, who appointed village chiefs, war chiefs and priests. Typically, all of the leaders were close relatives of the king. Leadership was based on descent from ancient founders of their society. Those not descended from the founding oligarchy were all commoners. This suggests that at some time in the distant past, outsiders from a more advanced culture had arrived in the region and set themselves up as the elite. The power of the elite seems to have been also linked to the Calusa religion, which involved sorcery and communication with the souls of the dead.

The physical appearance of the Calusa was a little different than the ancestors of the Muskogean Native American peoples of the Southeast. The Calusa averaged about 4” taller than the Spanish and about 8” shorter than the Creek Indians of Georgia. The men wore their disheveled hair down to their waist. One of the names the Creeks called the Calusa was “Weste” which means “people with disheveled hair.” It is probable that the 18th Native American tribe, known as the Westos in South Carolina received their name from this same derogatory adjective, but they were probably not the same ethnic group. The Calusa men only wore a leather breechcloth, while the women wore skirts woven from Spanish Moss and palmettos leaves. The commoners wore very few personal adornments.

Linguistic evidence of Mesoamerican contact

Very few Calusa words are known now. However, more complete records may exist somewhere in the Spanish Colonial Archives, stored in Seville, Spain. The name, Calusa or Caloosa, may come from the Creek Indian word – Kolasa – which means “Star (People).” However, Kolasa may have an idiomatic meaning which has been lost.

Juan Rangel, a Jesuit missionary to the Calusa in the 1560s said that their name for themselves was Eskampa or Eskampaha. “Eskam” appears to be the Castilian way of saying the Chontal Maya word, IsK’uum. IsK'uum is the Calabaza squash - indigenous to the Caribbean Islands and a favorite vegetable of the Calusa's. It is a small, round squash that grows rapidly, and has a many, small, sweet fruits. Pa Is a Chontal Maya locative suffix that was also used by the Creeks on the coastal plain of South Carolina. It roughly translates as “place of or territory of.” Ha is the Chontal Maya suffix for water. Thus, a possible translation of the Eskampaha would be “territorial waters of the Calabaza Squash People.”

Community planning and architectural traditions

Canals built by the Calusas survive to this day on the islands that they inhabited. Archaeologists have also found vestiges of a canal system between Lake Okeechobee and Charlotte Harbor. Canals seemed to have functioned as the principal “streets” of coastal Caloosa towns. They enabled the occupants to haul sea food and bulk commodities to landings very close to habitation areas. As can be seen in the upper illustration, Calusa Key was served by a network of canals, which divided up the island into neighborhoods. The largest canal might have been sixty feet wide at one time. The Calusa also excavated protected harbors inside islands at locations where major canals intersected.

While supplying a cornucopia of seafood for the population, the islands and coastal marshlands of the Calusa province were also very vulnerable to hurricanes, high tides and tropical storms – which are almost annual occurrences. The flat surface of Calusa Key is barely above sea level. Tidal surges from larger hurricanes could have easily covered the island with water. In response to this serious environmental threat, their architecture and communities had unique features.

The temples and houses of the elite were on mounds and platforms created by immense piles of shells. The shell mounds would disperse the force of waves, wind and tidal surges, while raising the floors of buildings above flood levels. The commoners lived in houses constructed on timber piles, either individual structures or in platform villages. It is likely that the Creek Indians who migrated into Florida in the 1700s and early 1800s (later becoming known as Seminoles) observed the elevated houses of the surviving Calusas and adapted the concept to their architectural traditions.

When the Spanish first visited the Calusa in the late 1500s, they observed that the people at that time lived in large communal buildings. As many as 600 people would live in one structure, set upon a mound of shells. The archaeological evidence of smaller buildings for individual families comes from an earlier period of time. It is not known exactly when the Calusas shifted from single family homes to group living. However, the Spanish colonists of coastal Georgia and South Carolina in the 1560s also observed that some indigenous peoples there also lived in massive structures that could hold an entire village.

Rise to regional power

Around the year 900 AD, the Calusa Province merged with the Mayami province around Lake Okeechobee and the Tekesta villages on the southeast Florida coast in the vicinity of modern day Miami and Fort Lauderdale. At this time central political power shifted to Wakate (Guacata in Spanish). Wakate was on the main canal crossing the Florida Peninsula. The root word, waka, means roadway, in several Mexican languages, while te means “people or ethnic group” in one of the Hitchiti-Creek Indian dialects. By this time, the style of pottery produced by the Calusa had changed to the Belle Glade III style of pottery produced around Lake Okeechobee. This pottery was tempered with the spines of freshwater sponges that thrived in the waters of southern Florida.

The powerful state in southern Florida dominated trade in much of the peninsula until around 1150 AD. At that time, the towns around Lake Okeechobee and the Saint Johns River lake country were abandoned and power apparently shifted to the Calusa; for their towns continued to thrive. The earliest known Arawak (Timucua) village sites date to this time period in northeastern Florida. At about the same time, the Toltec capital of Tula was sacked, and Ocmulgee (probably really named Waka) in central Georgia was abandoned. This was also the period when the large apartment buildings in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico were abandoned.

There was an extended, severe drought in Mexico and the Southwestern United States in the period around 1120-40 AD. The drought may have also occurred in what is now the Southeastern United States, also. Famine may have also disrupted trade or caused some ethnic groups to be aggressive. Another possibility is that abnormal weather elsewhere could have triggers massive hurricanes that completely destroyed the towns in southeastern and south central Florida.

From around 1150 AD until 1550 AD, the Calusas dominated southern Florida and controlled the maritime trade routes to the south. They were still regularly trading with Cuba in the 1700s and may have traded with the Maya in earlier times. The Calusa were aware of an advanced civilization in the Yucatan Peninsula. Trade was carried out in giant dug out cypress canoes with the prows turned upward like Chontal Maya boats. The Calusa also built smaller outrigger canoes with sails for travel on coastal waters and Lake Okeechobee.

Colonial Period

The first mention of the Calusas was in May of 1513, when one of Juan Ponce de Leon’s foundered on the southwest coast of Florida. The Calusas already knew about the Spanish because they had been taking in Indian refugees from Cuba. They initially offered to trade with the Spanish, but on the tenth day 20 Calusa war canoes attacked the Spanish. They were driven off, but 80 war “shielded” war canoes attacked the next day. In 1517 Francisco de Cordoba landed in Calusa territory after discovering the Yucatan Peninsula. He was attacked by them. In 1521 Juan Ponce de Leon foolishly sailed to southwest Florida again with the intentions of starting a colony. The Calusa’s drove the Spanish back their boats, and killed Ponce de Leon in the process.

Governor Pedro Menendez de Aviles, founder of St. Augustine, met with the Calusa king in 1566 and married the king’s sister. A Spanish garrison and mission were established. Friction between the two peoples turned into open fighting. Two Calusa chiefs and several nobles were killed. The mission and garrison were abandoned in 1567.

Because of the Calusa’s formidable military power and disinterest by potential colonists, Spain never really “conquered” the Calusas. An uneasy détente was reached in the early 1600s whereby the Calusas traded freely with Spanish colonies in Cuba and on the Gulf Coast of northern Florida and attacked any other nation’s citizens, who unfortunately made land fall on Calusa territory. Yet still from time, there was opening fighting between the Calusa and the Spanish. French and English sailors who shipwrecked in southwestern Florida faced certain death until the early 1700s.

When Spain turned over Florida to the English Crown in 1763, approximately 80 Calusa families were moved to Cuba. A few isolated hamlets and farmsteads probably remained in the interior. Apparently, these remnants of a once powerful nation were absorbed by the Florida Seminoles. There is no federal or state-recognized Calusa tribe today.

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