The Calusa Indians

Lettered OliveArchaeologists have discovered evidence that Sanibel Island has been lived on for nearly 3,500 years. Besides inhabiting Lee County, where Sanibel is located, Calusa Indians also lived in Charlotte and Collier counties.

The Calusa were one of the first Florida peoples with whom Spaniards established communication, although it was very intermittentent from the time of Ponce de León early in
the sixteenth century until the culture was decimated in the second half of the eighteenth century (Hann, 4).

It is believed by some anthropologists the Calusa came from the Caribbean and South America through tracing the roots of their language to the Carib and Arawak cultures. By studying the mounds and artifacts located from within the mounds, archaeologists have discovered that the Calusa had a highly evolved, stratified social structure, rich in religion and ritual.

Type D Hammer - A Calusa ToolFrom writings of early explorers and archaeological evidence, the Calusa people were very tall. Natural plant, shell (Pen Shell) and animal fibers were used to produce garments, baskets, fishing nets and traps. 

Men’s garments were made of finely softened deerskin and women’s garments were woven from Spanish moss, reminiscent of fine wool. Some Spanish accounts describe women's garments as resembling wood.

Necklaces and ornaments were made of shark teeth or small seashells and bone (Fritz,13). The Olive shells (oliva sayana - Ravenel, 1834) were perforated at the tip of the spire and hung as beads or clothing as decoration. Flat pieces of whelk were used as decorated discs hung around the neck, called gorgets. The regal garb of the headman or “chief” included a forehead ornament and beaded leg bands (Brown,110).

Patterns of Subsistence in the Calusa Culture

Anthropologists refer to the ability of the resources of land to support the number of people living on it as carrying capacity. It is believed that humans turned to horticulture 10,000 years ago, leaving behind the ways of food foraging for a more sedentary lifestyle. Only 5,000 years ago, during the time Sanibel Island was formed in the Gulf of Mexico, humans developed intensive agriculture as a way to produce more food in a given area for populations that outgrow the land's carrying capacity. This practice began in Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia (now Iraq), India, North China, Mesoamerica, and Western South America and is used by industrialized nations, including the U.S. today. Intensive agriculture increases the carrying capacity of the land with specialized farming machinery and today with fertilizers.

A Calusa Village - Art by Dean QuigleyCurator in archaeology for the Florida Museum of Natural History and Director of the University of Florida Institute of Archaeology and Paleoenvironmental Studies, Dr.William Marquardt, describes in the FMNH's online research page that Spaniards witnessed an attendance of 4,000 members at the Calusa King's alliance ceremonies with Spanish governer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1566. Additionally, Marquardt writes that eye-witness accounts describe a building capacity of over 2,000 people.

In their continued efforts to develop a full picture of the way the Calusa sustained themselves from their immediate environment, researchers at the FLMNH are investigating whether linear keys found in the former Calusa heartland (Charlotte Harbor estuarine system) are remnants of a large, complex fishing facility.

It is possible that the thriving ecological system supported the growth of this highly stratified culture, with a population around 20,000 members and a political influence that reached distant parts of northern Florida.

Calusa horticulture did not include a staple crop, as most cultures do. Instead, the Calusa diet was diverse. In shell bordered gardens they grew corn, pumpkins, squash and tobacco. Occasionally, perhaps for a change from routine diet, they retreated to the inner island to hunt for deer, turkey, opossum and rattlesnake. Fish (e.g. mullet, kingfish and mackeral) and meat was preserved by smoking and salting it. Other sources of wild food included seagrapes, papaya, prickly pear fruit, hearts of palm and coconut, which thrive on the island today (Brown, 115).

Tobacco was used for smoking, incense and was used for religious offerings. Nicotiana rustica is a highly potent form of tobacco; its use may even have preceded the growing of food crops in Florida two to three thousand years ago.  It contains four times the nicotine in today’s tobacco products.  In low doses it produces a soothing effect; in high doses is produces hallucinations and loss of consciousness (Brown, 114-115). 

Frank Hamilton Cushing (1857-1900) - One of the First Professional AnthropologistsIn 1895 archaeologist Frank Hamilton Cushing referred to the Calusa as “Pile Dwellers and Mound People.” Frank Hamilton Cushing proved to be one of the most influential pioneer anthropologists. He began at an early age to develop his skill for professional ethnography, the observation of a culture by a professional anthropologist who is trained in anthropological theory and lives with a culture for an extended period of time. Frank Hamilton Cushing also practiced cultural relativism, meaning he observed and recorded the activities of the cultures he studied (particularly the Zuni Indians of N. America) on their own terms, not that of his own culture.

His natural aptitude for anthropological research was recognized by the Smithsonian Institution and he was made curator of the ethnological department at the age of nineteen at the National Museum in Washington, D.C. Among his studies, he was one of the most prominent to study the Calusa Indians.

He wrote that Calusa fishing villages were constructed of long, sturdy pilings, jettisoned down into the sea bottom at the base of shell mounds. Conchs and large surf clams were used to line sidewalls, ramps and causeways. Platforms were fastened to the pilings and on the platforms thatched homes were erected. 

Using the same construction method adopted by the Spanish, to build Castillo de San Marcos, a Spanish Fort and America's oldest European settlement) in St. Augustine, FL the Calusa used the readily available island resources: shell and marl (clay). These two ingredients were mixed and the end product was similar to cement when dried. This material provided an ideal foundation material for Calusa homes (Fritz, 7).

Manufacturing a Canoe for Transportation
The Calusa dug canals linking important waterways, understandably for travel and trade.  They had a preference for the fast burning, resin-impregnated wood of yellow pine, which probably arose from the method of controlled burning to hollow out the log.  The boats were very efficient, only requiring a few inches of water to float and allowed the traveler to reach places otherwise unreachable.  

The Spanish Explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés described the Calusa as having two canoes “fastened one to the other, with decks covered with awnings of hoops and matting.”  Each town had a canal, which led to an artificial lake in the center of which was a pyramid of seashells.  One hundred of these canoes have been found in South Florida, well preserved in peat. The oldest canoe found was radio-carbon dated at 5,000 years old (Brown, 112).

Pottery has existed throughout human culture for 25,000-29,000 years, originating sometime during the Palaeolithic Age (500,000 BC. to 10,000 BC.) (Bryant, Victor). Some of the oldest clay creations (advance to slide 3) are tiny figurines, bearing an exaggeration of the female figure. Pottery's most practical applications, like those used by the Calusa were discovered in Asia in 7,000 b.c.  Clay used in South Florida pottery may contain freshwater sponge spicules – tiny needlelike objects made of silica and seashells and limestone were used to prevent cracking during firing.

Pottery found by archaeologists in Sanibel contains evidence of the use of Spanish moss, which after being fired at a temperature over 750° Fahrenheit left a tiny pattern of holes visible under magnification. Surface treatments included stamping with corn cobs or seashells, scratching to produce lines, and punching with small objects to produce small dents, called punctation. Eagles and other wildlife on the island were venerated by the Calusa and have been represented by several art objects and paintings, including bone and pottery pieces. Decoration on pottery (after firing) was done by adding red pigment or polishing by a small pebble or other hard object.  Drilling a hole on either side of the crack and tying the crack together with a leather thong repaired cracks in large pots. 

Type C Hammer - A Calusa ToolReligion and Ritual

The Calusa held religious observances and buried their dead in special mounds made of sand and lined their elaborate system of water highways with seashells, so that they might find them by canoe.  Objects used in religious rituals were housed in the temple at the top of the mound.  The chief and a few priests entered the temple to perform secret ceremonies to insure continued bounty from land and sea.  Elaborate masks were an important part of Calusa religious pageantry.  Incest was prohibited with one exception.  The ruling lineage was maintained by the requirement that the chief marry his sister. 

He may then take additional wives - sometimes with a neighboring tribe to strengthen political ties. When a chief or his principal wife died, some of their servants were killed to accompany the royalty to the next land.  When a child of a chief died, children of the village were sacrificed (Brown, 159-160).

The Calusa possessed a complex belief system that was divided into nobles and commoners. They supported an elite military force and demanded tribute from towns far away. Their belief system included daily offerings to ancestors and belief in an afterlife, including synchronized singing by hundreds of women. (Hann, xv).

Calusa practices were observed by Father Rogel, a Jesuit priest who was brought there by Menendez. Seeing the Calusa practices from the viewpoint of his own culture and religious practices embedded in its fabric, Father Rogel had an ethnocentric viewpoint of the Calusa culture. He could not begin to fully appreciate the deep meanings and symbolic acts carried out by the Calusa unless he viewed the culture on their own terms.

In his journal, he writes:

One of the two priests left by Menendez, Father Rogel, describes his ethnocentric viewpoint of the Calusa religion and worldview:  They believe each man has three souls; one is the pupil of the eye, another one the shadow that each one makes, and another one is the image one sees in a mirror or in clear water, and when a man dies they say that two of the souls leave the body, and the third one which is the pupil of the eye, always remains in the body; and thus they go to speak with the dead of the cemetery, and ask them advice about things that have to be done, as if they were alive; and I believe that there they get answers from the devil; because many things that happen in other places or that come up afterwards, they know by what they hear there. 
When someone gets sick, they say that one of his souls has left and the witch doctors go look for it in the woods, and they say they bring it back making the same movements people go through when putting an unwilling goat into a pen.  They light fire at the door of the house and windows so that it would not dare go out again, and they report they put it back in the man through the top of the head by conducting some ceremonies over it.  They also have another error; when a man dies, his soul enters some animal or fish; and when they kill that animal, it enters into a smaller one until little by little it comes to vanish (Brown, 159-160).

A Dominant Trading Culture

The Calusa found items produced by the sea around them were ideal items for trade with the land locked cultures of the north.  At the time the Calusas lived on the island, the white powder sand beaches were strewn almost knee-deep with seashells, of all shapes and colors.  Gulf Coast seashells have been found in Oklahoma and as far north as Wisconsin.  Items traded for included high-grade chert for cutting tools, arrowheads and embossed copper plates used in religious rituals.  Conch beads were used by the Adena peoples of Ohio and Indiana 2,800 years ago in elaborate rituals burying beautifully crafted objects with the burned bodies of their dead (Brown, 117).

It is possible that the Calusa may have traded with Caribs, Arawaks and other Indians of the Caribbean Islands and Central America and there is also evidence that they may have traded with the Aztec of Mexico, but so far, insufficient archaeological evidence to support this conclusion. The two cultures shared an interesting and highly sophisticated weapon in common called the atlatl.  This weapon was used to carry spears with a throwing motion to its target with extreme force and proved an efficient tool against the muskets of the Spanish. De Soto accounts, “While a Spaniard was firing one shot and reloading, an Indian fired six or seven times.” This may not be a coincidence, however, as this weapon is believed to have originated in Europe and can be found in many cultures around the world - even the aborigines of Australia. The Calusa brand uncovered by archaeologists was made of local oak, buttonwood or red mangrove.


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