By Tamara Jager Stewart

This is an article excerpt from the Fall 2020 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription. 

The Calusa king Caalus, perched high on his throne in his grand house, watched as Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the first governor of La Florida, arrived with his entourage. According to Spanish accounts it was 1566 and, hoping to impress Caalus, who ruled what is now south Florida, Menéndez had assembled five hundred men, including some two hundred soldiers, as well as trumpeters, drummers, fifes, and even a gifted singing and dancing dwarf. They arrived in seven vessels and climbed to the peak of Mound Key, a thirty foot high, human-made island of shells and sand, to greet the king.

This LiDAR map shows some of Mound Key’s salient features, including two large shell mounds known as Mound 1 and Mound 2, the canal that bisects the island, and the two massive west and east watercourts flanking the island’s southwest shoreline. | Credit: Victor D. Thompson
These twisted and knotted pieces of palm-fiber cordage were recovered from Pineland, another Calusa site. The Calusa used this cordage in their fishing nets. | Photo Courtesy of the Florida Museum of Natural History, photo by William Marquardt
Archaeologists excavate one of the Spanish structures located on Mound 2 at Mound Key. The yellow flags indicate features, many of which are the posts that held up a Spanish house. This was one of thirty-six structures that was said to have been constructed inside of Fort San Antón.  | Credit: Victor D. Thompson
Artifacts such as these played an important role in the Calusa’s daily life. (Top row, left to right) A deer-bone pin, a deer-bone net shuttle, two bone beads, and three perforated shark teeth. (Second row) A deer-bone point, a deer-bone barb used for a composite fish hook, a turtle-bone net-mesh gauge, bone carved into a bird, and an antler socket. (Third row) A whelk-shell sinker and three ark-shell net weights. (Bottom row) A conch-shell hammer, a whelk-shell grinder, a conch-shell perforator, and a whelk-shell cutting tool. | Photo Courtesy of the Florida Museum of Natural History, photos by Jeff Gage, graphic by Pat Payne

Mound Key was thought to be the seat of the powerful Calusa kingdom, and recent archaeological research there has confirmed it was in fact the capital and also revealed the extent of ancient landscape alteration, monumental construction, and engineering ingenuity that allowed the Calusa’s population to grow to an estimated 20,000 without reliance on agriculture. Indeed, given the results of recent research, they are now considered one of the most politically complex groups of non-agriculturalists in the ancient world.

“The Calusa have long fascinated archaeologists because they were a fisher-gatherer-hunter society that attained unusual social complexity,” said William Marquardt, curator emeritus of South Florida Archaeology and Ethnography at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Marquardt and Victor Thompson of the University of Georgia are co-directing research at Mound Key, which has a complex arrangement of shell midden mounds, canals, watercourts, and other features. “For me, the work has been absolutely fantastic, and since we began it has been one discovery after another,” said Thompson.

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