19. Calusa, Timucua

The Calusa and Timucua tribes of Florida are intriguing. Both speak language isolates and are considered descendants of early Paleolithic people.

The Calusa were suspected of cannibalism, which they denied, but evidence found in mounds suggests that cannibalism was highly probable. Although decimated by Spanish diseases the Calusa managed to hold on to mainland Florida until the English drove them into the Keys. Eventually a mere 350 survivors were removed to Havana. I am unclear if the Calusa were driven into extinction or if a few managed to survive in Cuba.

What I found most interesting about the Calusa is their archaeological link to Paleolithic people. Five hundred years ago the Spanish met the descendants of a group that had inhabited Florida for 12,000 years. It is stunning to think that those peoples’ ancestors had hunted wooly mammoths and saber toothed tigers. Had the Calusa survived the European invasion they would likely still exist. But their legacy of 12,000 years of continuous habitation and unbroken culture remains breathtaking.

The Calusa were known as the Shell People until their demise in the 1800’s because they built their cities on deep foundations of shells. Mound Key is a man-made island of 125 acres created by the Calusa. The foundations were constructed by first driving the spiral ends of shells into the mud at low tide. Then marl was packed around the shells. Soil and marl continued to be laid on in layers until the landmass was raised to sea level. That was followed by the creation of canals and embankments. Archaeological evidence suggests that Mound Key is believed to have been both a defense stronghold and a ritual center but I couldn’t find what that evidence actually was.
In general, most Calusa artifacts have been found in these shell mounds. A great variety of tools, jewelry, weapons, and so forth has been discovered and all are made from a vast array of shells. Archaeologists also found wooden carvings and mask rendered by the Calusa from local hardwoods. The sculptures include images of panthers, deer, wolves, pelicans, alligators, and sea turtles. All had been varnished with what appears to be multiple layers of animal fat to enhance preservation.

Written records suggest that the Calusa were governed by a chief and a medicine man. Their society was strict and complex, and although human sacrifice is evident, the Calusa bear absolutely no resemblance to any other tribe in the region. They were regarded as not the least bit friendly and had no reservations about killing the Spanish explorer Ponce De Leon in 1513.

The Timucua were also a Paleolithic group thought to have arrived in northern Florida 10,000 to 12,000 years ago from the Caribbean. The bits and pieces of surviving information about the Timucua’s language, an isolate, suggest a relationship to the early Amazonian Arawak spoken in the Caribbean. The Timucua interacted with the Creek and other tribes of the southeast. European accounts report that the Timucua were a sophisticated, shamanistic clan culture. Medicine people were observed entering into trances before prophesying, diagnosing illness, locating stolen or lost objects, and foretelling the weather.

Continued English and Spanish pressure, and decimation by European diseases reduced the Timucua population so completely that the Seminole had no difficulty moving into Timucua territory from the north. The English hunted Florida’s deer population into near extinction further compromising the Timucua’s ability to survive. There are a handful of individuals alive today who claim to be descendants of the Timucua.

Florida is only a few hundred miles from southern Appalachia, and it is known that Indigenous trade networks extended many hundreds, and even thousands of miles in all directions. It is not inconceivable that the Paleolithic people of Florida extended a cultural reach into southern Appalachia even if only through the tribal grapevine that included numerous other unrelated groups. That possibility and their dazzling Paleolithic origins earned both the Calusa and the Timucua a place in this study.




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Responses to “19. Calusa, Timucua”

  1. Verda, your website is astonishingly good, considering all the great sites already out there, and I am very pleased to have this wealth of important and well-presented information at my fingertips.

    In 2000, my wife and I visited Spiro Mounds State Park in Spiro, Oklahoma, and heard a fascinating story about a connection between the Calusas of SW Florida, where we were living at the time (Fort Myers, which is full of their shell mounds), and the Mississippian culture. The story ranks right up there with the most exciting true adventure I have ever read, the account of Cabeza de Vaca in the epic “first” crossing by Europeans of the North American Continent.

    The park ranger at Spiro, who was a professor and had written papers on the subject, explained to my wife and me (privately, because we were the only ones there) that the Mississippian civilization extended for about 1,000 miles, and its main base was at Spiro, where the indigenous people had created sacred mounds. The “king” of the culture resided there, and he regularly sent emissaries to the villages and towns throughout his entire huge domain (probably not the most accurate word) – which had a more populated civilization than any in Europe at the time – circa 1,000 CE. Imagine: A North America considerably advanced in some ways compared to that of Europe at the time!

    He went on to tell us that the king had a specific emblem of office that his messengers and ambassadors carried with them, a rare left-spiraling conch shell, found only in the Fort Myers-Naples area. The conch shell meant, essentially, that “We are officials of the king” and was recognized throughout the territory. So how did the king obtain these shells, way north in Oklahoma?

    Each year the Calusa people would send a few people in a canoe to Spiro. They would paddle north and then west along the Gulf of Mexico, paddle upstream on the Mississippi, then head west on the Arkansas River to the Poteau River, and arrive at Spiro. So, in 1,000 CE, there were Indigenous Americans carrying on trade for a distance of 1,000 miles! And then making the return journey. It boggles the mind, because status-quo narrative of ancient America is that it was very primitive and that its people lived in poverty. But that is absolutely not so. Many groups were mannered, civilized, and capable. To some of them, Europeans at the time might have seemed primitive.

    The thought of this trade-journey of the Calusas, and then the missions of the king’s emissaries, are so exciting to me that if I ever have time, I would like to write a novel about it.

    Now I go to explore the rest of your lovely website.

    • David, that is a marvelous story and a terrific addition to this site. Thank you for your comment, and the devotion of spirit that allows you to share this information with all of us.