Ancient America: Florida BCE

American Indians occupied, utilized, and developed the peninsula known as Florida for thousands of years. Our knowledge of the ancient past-of Florida, BCE-comes primarily from archaeology. Unfortunately, archaeology tells the story of the past based on material remains which means that these remains must have endured for thousands of years, then be found, and finally interpreted. As a result our picture of Florida, BCE is not complete, but rather a series of seemingly disjointed snapshots.  

By 11,000 BCE, Indian people were living in northern Florida. At this time, the sea levels were 350 feet lower than present. The land mass of Florida was much larger than it is today. The people at this time were engaging in hunting and gathering wild plants for food and fiber.  At this time, the Indians were hunting mastodon, mammoth, horse, camel, and giant land tortoise. Water sources, particularly those in deep springs, were important for both human habitation and for the animals which they hunted.

A thousand years later, the Indian people at the Little Salt Spring were hunting turtles and the giant land tortoise, Geochelone Crassicutata. The turtles were killed with a stake and then cooked in the shell. These people were also using an oak throwing stick or boomerang for hunting small mammals. They also had a deer-antler which had had its roots and points cut off and 28 parallel notches cut into it. This is one of the earliest examples of counting time in North America.

Bison antiquus

About 9,000 BCE, Indian people near the Wacissa River were hunting Bison antiques (skull shown above).

About 8500 BCE, Indian people living near Mineral Springs buried their dead near the edge of the springs. One was a man, 30-40 years of age, who was 5’4″ tall and weighed about 110 pounds. He had worn and abscessed teeth. Another was the body of a middle-aged female. As the sea level raised at the end of the ice age, so did the water within the spring. By the time the skeletons were discovered by archaeologists, they were under water.

About 7500 BCE, there was an increase in population and new settlements were formed around freshwater sources. There was a shift in the way of life from nomadic to a more settled form. This marks the beginning of what archaeologists call the Archaic Period. At this time new types of stone tools appeared. Trade networks connected the people to other parts of the southeast. During this time, Florida’s climate was growing warmer and wetter.

Among the new stone tools were the Rowan points. These medium-sized dart points had broad, shallow side notches and a concave basal edge. The basal corners were lobed or rounded and the stem edges were ground.

About 6120 BCE, Indian people began burying their dead in the Windover Bog Site. Archaeologists will later recover the remains of 177 individuals at this site. Adult males have an average height of 5 feet 9 inches. While their teeth were worn, they had very few cavities. Anthropologists managed to obtain DNA samples from some of the bodies at the site, but the mitochondrial DNA lineages which were found are not present in any contemporary American Indian populations. One of the samples, however belongs to lineage X, which is also found in European populations. This lends some support to the hypothesis that there were some migrations by boat from Europe to North America.

By 5000 BCE, Indian people were living on the dune ridges of Horr’s Island in south Florida.  

By 2900 BCE, Indian people began building a large mound with layers of white sand, charcoal-stained sand, and oyster shell on Horr’s Island. The mound eventually reached a height of 6 meters (20 feet). The people were living in a year-round settlement and making small houses from poles and thatch.

Fire pottery is being used by the Florida Indians by about 2500 BCE. These early ceramic vessels are very similar to the earlier steatite (stone) bowls which they had been making.

There is evidence that by 2400 BCE, Florida Indians were making sea voyages to both the Caribbean Islands and South America. The people were probably making such voyages much earlier than this, but this time marks the first archaeological evidence of the voyages.

At the Summer Haven site (officially designated as 8SJ46) Indian people constructed four circular structures about 2000 BCE. The people who occupied this site were practicing cranial deformation (a deliberate modification of head shape which begins by binding the head of an infant shortly after birth). This is a practice which was common in Mexico at this time.

About 2000 BCE, Indian people living on Useppa Island in the Pine Island Sound were making fiber-tempered pottery.

A type of decorated pottery known as Tick Island was being made by Florida Indians by 1600 BCE. The Tick Island decorated pottery resembles the pottery found at Barlovento on Colombia’s northern coast and this pottery, in turn, appears to be derived from the Valdivia pottery of Ecuador.

The Rollings Shell Ring was constructed in 1580 BCE. A shell ring is a curved midden made of shells which partially surrounds a cleared space. The ring is 7 meters in height (about 23 feet) and 250 meters (825 feet) in diameter. The ring was built up quickly and there were few artifacts within it.

By 1500 BCE, the Indian people at the Joseph Reed Shell Ring site (officially designated as 8MT13) were making sand-tempered pottery. This represents one of the earliest intensive uses of pottery in south Florida. The pottery is the earliest sand-tempered and chalky wares in Florida. Archaeologists Michael Russo and Gregory Heide report:

“In terms of migration/diffusion, the pottery from Joseph Reed has nowhere to migrate from. It is not tempered with fiber as is the pottery of the site’s nearest contemporaneous pottery-producing neighbors to the north. Thus a direct connection cannot be made with those neighbors in terms of paste and temper (design and form, however, cannot be ruled out until more data are obtained).”

People began to occupy a site near the Crystal River in 537 BCE. The site included two large temple mounds with ramps, a smaller residential mound, a plaza, and two burial mounds. There appears to be contact with the Hopewell people in Ohio as evidenced by flint knives and other artifacts.

By 500 BCE, the Timucua began to occupy the sub-tropical areas of Florida. At this same time, the Tequesta were living in the area near present-day Miami, Florida. They constructed a number of round houses, including a chief’s house or council house, using a post framework.

In 350 BCE, the Crystal River site was established as a ceremonial center. Construction began on a feature designated by archaeologists as Mound F which served as a burial mound. It would eventually rise to a height of 20 feet. About 1,000 people would eventually be buried here.  

In 30 BCE, Indian people along the Crystal River began construction of a series of shell mounds which have astronomical alignments. The mounds and stone pillars could be used to observe the solstices and equinoxes.