About a dozen people gathered at the Pine Island Library Wednesday night to hear a presentation about the Calusa legacy.
Coordinator of Programs and Services for the Randell Research Center Cindy Bear, who is a fifth generation Florida native, provided a slide-show presentation for those who were in attendance about the Calusa people and their ancestors. She told the crowd she did not start hearing about the Calusa people until she was in college, which sparked many questions.
Bear said evidence shows that nearly 6,000 years ago a fishing culture existed in Florida, but an estimate of how many people lived in the area is hard to calculate due to burial procedures and records. She said although they do not know how many people Ponce de Leon made contact with when the explorer visited, they know there were many cultures in Florida at the time.
Artist’s depiction of Calusa daily life at Pineland.
One of those cultures stemmed from the Calusa people who made Southwest Florida their domain. Bear said Calusa means "fierce people," who were brave and skillful.
The richness of the estuary, she said, was the primary key to their prosperity.
"The Calusa lived along the shoreline and then lived among the mounds 1,000 years ago in very large structures," Bear said.
The canoe was their sophisticated way of travel.
Bear said the Calusa people created the Pine Island canal, which was 30 feet wide and 8-12 feet deep, and circled around the mounds and included a lake. She said a system and structure had to have been in place.
She told the crowd that In 1513 Ponce de Leon had his first encounter with the Calusa people and left the area when certain difficulties arose from the Calusa people. Bear said in 1521 Ponce de Leon came back and encountered the Calusa people again while having the same difficulties.
Her slide show also touched upon Escalante Fontanda, a captive of the Calusa people for 17 years. Other Native people captured the young man in 1549 at the age of 13 on the east coast before he was sent to the Calusa people. Fontanda was going to Spain on a boat when Bear said apparently a hurricane or other major storm caused the boat to crash.
When he eventually returned to Spain, Bear said there was pressure from the king for him to write a memoir of the years he was held captive. She said they were able to piece together many things of the Calusa people from the memoir, which may hold some biases, along with historic documents that has no bias at all.
Bear also spoke about the methods archaeologists and historians use to uncover new information about the Calusa people.
"You can look at changes overtime in a cross section," she explained.
The oldest material, Bear said, is often found on the bottom. She said that environmental conditions also tell a story as well due to the size of fish bones found.
Pineland, Bear said, went through lots of climate changes that depicted what time of the year the Calusa people caught certain fish.
In addition to fishing, Bear said the Calusa people also created small home gardens that had such items as chili peppers, squash and papaya. She said it is hard to imagine that they had papayas to choose from, but the conditions back when helped them thrive.
In 1710, Bear said, there were still people at Pineland practicing as Calusa. By the mid 1700s they had been enslaved, killed or driven out from their lands and waters.
"Any Calusa descendants are living in Cuba," she said.
The hour and 25 minute presentation was followed by questions from the crowd.
Bear told the audience that she has had a remarkable two years at the Randell Research Center.
"I have realized we are just scratching the surface," she said, in terms of understanding and finding out more information about the Calusa people. "The profound thing is how much we have learned."
She recommended books to the crowd regarding the Calusa people, which included "The Calusa and their legacy: South Florida people and their environments," "Florida's first people: 12,000 years of human history," "Missions to the Calusa" and "Florida's lost tribes."