Thousands of years ago, indigenous people called the Calusa inhabited much of coastal Southwest Florida. The Calusa culture was a complex society that thrived on the bounty of the estuary as opposed to agriculture, which was the primary means of subsistence for many other early American people. Numerous Calusa settlements were developed along the Collier County coastline and were occupied from 400 to 2,500 years ago.
Changing their landscape on many fronts, the Calusa people left behind traces of their way of life on the shell mound complexes they built. The size and locations of the settlements, many of which are in the Ten Thousand Islands, indicate that large communal groups flourished on the abundance of coastal resources with fish and shellfish accounting for up to 70 percent of their diet.
The Calusas regarded mollusk shells, as well as other animal parts, as important resources because of the lack of workable stone and building materials in their environment. They utilized bones, spines and teeth as tools for sewing, piercing or spearing. And, their homes were built on large mounds of discarded shells, like modern building foundations, to provide protection from extreme high tides and storms.
Several Calusa mound complexes are protected within the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve’s 110,000 acres. These cultural resources belong to the people of Florida, and their continued existence is instrumental for future research and education.
Archaeologists studying the Calusa culture look closely at artifacts (items made or carved by humans) to learn about what life was like for prehistoric peoples. Within each mound complex are middens (smaller mounds) that served specific purposes. The “kitchen middens,” or refuse piles, tend to provide the greatest clues to the mysteries surrounding their lost culture. In addition to shell tools, pieces of broken pottery are, by far, the most commonly found remnants of the Calusa civilization. These artifacts have provided valuable insights into their social evolution.
In the Calusa culture, women made the pottery and finished the rim of each piece with their finger nail or other object in a distinct pattern representing a sort of regional, tribal trademark. By studying pottery remnants found in different middens along the coast, archaeologists have determined that either the pots, or their makers, were traded between regions.