Imagine the year is 230 AD and you are standing at the center of the Calusa mound complex at Pineland. Multiple tiers of earth mounds and elevated commons areas are covered with thatched palm frond roofs and graded pathways. Countless dugout canoes can be seen coming and going, carrying everything from dried mullet to colored fabrics, in an intricate canal system that intersects and connects every part of the city.
Pineland, FL is located on Pine Island, one of the barrier island of the Lee County Coast, and is the site of one of the most extensive Calusa Indian mound complexes in the world. Now with a visitors station and education center, the Randell Research Center preserves and maintains the entire site.
Pineland was the center of one of the largest and oldest native civilizations in Florida. The Calusa tribe was established over 2,000 years ago and inhabited the area until European arrival in the 1500s. The site was “Tampa” or “Tanpa”, a name which was transferred north by Europeans.
At one time, the Calusa were the most powerful people in all of South Florida. For many years they built large shell mounds, dug canals, and sustained thousands of people using aquaculture techniques in the surrounding estuaries. They have left a number of shell mound sites from Charlotte Harbor to the Everglades for us to explore and enjoy.
Things To See At The Pineland Calusa Indian Mounds:
- Brown’s Mound: Reaching at height of over thirty feet this is a central mound at the complex. It is built of shell midden, comprised of various whelks, all with extraction holes, which tell that these small conchs made up a significant part of their diet. The mound is made up of many separate stratifications, which composed of different materials, were built over many years, in succession.
- Randell Mound: This large mound sits overlooking the Gulf of Mexico and a natural alley that cuts through Redfish Pass and on to Cancun. It looks down on an ancient canal that, using satellite photography, can be seen heading east through Cape Coral and Labelle, all the way to the Ortona Indian Mounds, making it one of the longest canal systems in this hemisphere.
- Burial Mounds: Take the walk over the canal system and through the central area. Beyond that area are multiple sand and debitage mounds which have been found to include human remains. Often, mounds were used as burial sites for one generation of rulers with the subsequent generation building layers on top of it. Mounds offer a natural protection from storms, water and insects and people responsible for political and religious order naturally live up higher than everyone else.
- Artifacts: Shell tools made from lightning whelks, quahog clams and other shells are present throughout the site. Remember not to disturb any of the artifacts as it is a protected area. There are examples you can handle in the visitors center.
When exploring South Florida, always keep a keen eye out for gumbo limbo trees. The grow well on elevated shell mounds and are easily recognizable standing out from the surrounding flora. They have a distinct peeling bark which can be used to identify them. Their roots are often intertwined with the mound and the subsequent shell midden.
Atop the Randell Mound facing Redfish Pass. Calusa Indian mounds: Pineland, FL pic.twitter.com/P1B7y42S0S
— Jason Nail (@NailTravels) September 28, 2016
As an Anthropology student at Florida Gulf Coast University, I was allowed to participate on a dig at this site during the summer of 2002. Under Corbit Torrence of FGCU, and the assistance of Bill Marquart of the University of Florida, we dug square meter pits around the area that now serves as the visitor’s center. Daily, we would trowel through the shell midden and organic matter, which was dispersed in completely black soil, and then sift through it looking for relevant material. Mostly, we unearthed dietary evidence in the form of shells and bones, and often we would come across fired pottery, shell tools and even the occasional decorative bone pin. A couple of our pits revealed the floor of an ancient room, filled with cooking pottery sherds. All of these pieces were labeled by students and are housed in the Florida Museum of Natural History. Contact the Randell Research Center if you would like to find out more about future archaeology opportunities.