Marco Island’s earliest settlers
In 1896, Frank Hamilton Cushing created a major sensation among archaeologists, when he found, here on Marco Island, an until then totally unknown Native American culture that he named “Key Dwellers.”
Cushing led an expedition organized jointly by the Smithsonian Institution and the University Museum, Philadelphia, and sponsored by Dr.Pepper and Phoebe Hearst, the mother of the newspaper magnate , William Randolph Hearst.
|It turned out that among Cushing’s finds were some of the finest artifacts ever unearthed on the Eastern Seaboard. A veritable treasure trove of more than 2000 objects, practically the entire inventory of a village, came to light from a swamp near where the Old Marco Inn now stands. Because of the absence of oxygen in the bottom muck even objects of perishable material, such as wood and plant fiber had been preserved for up to fifteen hundred years.|
|Spanish chroniclers in the sixteenth century, called the natives they encountered in Southwest Florida, “Calusa.” This was thought to mean “the Fierce Ones” (Willingess, 1984). They were described as “tall of stature, great archers and men of strength.” Also, they “had no gold, no silver, and less clothing. They go naked, the men in a small loin cloth woven of palm fiber, the women in a skirt of a grass that grows on trees, and looks like silk.”|
|Their “discoverer,” the conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon, was first repulsed, in 1513, and finally killed during his second attempt, in 1521. For the next two hundred years the Calusa held the Spaniards at bay, until they finally succumbed to European introduced diseases, such as smallpox and measles, in addition to warfare and slavery from raiding tribes to the north. Therefore, our knowledge about their remarkable culture must be gleaned from scarce reports by undaunted missionaries and the results of modern archaeological excavations.|
|Living on a barrier island, the Calusa of Marco Island had no suitable stones available. Tools like axes, hammers, drills and scrapers, had to be fashioned from hard shells, such as conchs and clams. Spear and arrowheads were made from the leg bones of deer, shark teeth made fine knives for carving wood.|
With these they created the exquisite works of art found by Cushing, masks of humans and animals, some with original paint still visible!
The most famous among these artifacts is the Marco Cat, a six-inch statuette of a being half human/ half feline.
These works of art Cushing found may have been created 1000 years before “Contact,” and so, we know nothing of the religion they may have belonged to. But their artistic tradition continued, because the missionary, Father Rogel, disapprovingly describes “temples” full of masks “one uglier than the next.”
Little is known about Calusa religion. They believed in three superior beings, one controlled the weather, the others ruled the welfare of the tribe and warfare. Each human had three souls, present in his shadow, his reflection in water and in the pupil of his eye. After death only the last one remained with the body to be buried with it. The relatives of the deceased visited the grave site and communicated with this soul. The other souls migrated through animals, each one smaller than the previous – until it dissolved into nothing.
Written by Helmut Nickel
Reviewed by Austin Bell, MIHS Curator of Collections
Boldly Onward, by Lindsey Wilger Willigess Charlotte Harbor, 1984 pp, 12-29
Florida’s First People by Robin Brown Pineapple Press, Sarasota, 1999
pp. 27-36, 132-133
The Material Culture of Key Marco, Florida by Marion Spjut Gilliland
Florida Classics Library
Key Marco’s Buried Treasure University Press, Florida, Gainesville, 1989, pp. 2, 6