Throughout our tour of the Everglades we kept running into displays concerning the Calusa Indians, but never ran into a site that was totally committed to their history. Guides would usually mention them, and on one occasion a speaker at the Elderhostel we attended gave a more complete history.
Our first introduction to the Calusa was at the Tallahassee History Museum. The history starts with the artifacts from the earliest Native Americans and includes a full scale skeleton of a mastodon. Ten thousand years ago south Florida was a dry savanna with mega fauna such as mammoths and giant sloths. Later at the Collier County Museum we were introduced to the skeleton of a giant sloth. Six thousand years ago the global warning contributed to the dying out of the giant animals.
The Tallahassee Museum has a interesting tableau with life-sized figures that gave us a good overview of their tools and what they ate. Without any stone or metal tools they made excellent canoes by burning out the central portion of a log with a slow burning fire. Nearby were a number of canoes that they had made. An archeologist at the Collier County Museum said the Calusa Indians developed their culture about 2000 years ago. Although they had no metal or stones available, he showed us tools they had made out of shells that took the place of axes, hammers, awls and grinders...
Because food such as fish, shellfish and birds was so readily available, they had the free time needed to develop a significant culture of art, carving elaborate masks and various artifacts for decoration and for religious and ceremonial purposes.
The island world they lived in exists in a vast expanse of water that is only four feet deep. One night we had a speaker impersonating a hundred-year-old man who explained how some of the islands had been created by the Calusa Indians living in the area 2000 years ago. They had built some of the islands of oyster shells and earth. On our boat trip through the 10,000 Islands the guide pointed out one area with many mounds indicating an Indian burial ground.
Besides digging canals and burying their dead the Calusa constructed temples and other important building on the land they had created.
The reports of the Spanish who first met them were that they were ruled by a single chief, who was supported by a strong military. They had a class structure with nobles, commoners and slaves, and collected tribute from other Indians in southern Florida. When the Spanish announced they were claiming the area for themselves, the Calusa saw this as a joke, since the Spanish probably averaged five feet tall and the Indians six feet tall.
At the Collier County Museum a small Calusa village has also been built demonstrating how they used shells to create mounds in the isles area that they could live on. An archeologist was also on hand in a small building showing artifacts that have been gathered in the area. Other museums we visited also had artifacts, but little is actually known about these people.
They probably died out due to the diseases the Spanish brought into the country for which they had no immunity. Some were also killed by the Spanish. One of our guides believes a small number escaped to Cuba since signs of them have been found in the Catholic churches there.