History unfolded as water set the course
History unfolded as water set the course
Lessons abound in the stories of our state’s
earliest inhabitants, as they coped with the rising seas.
By Kenneth Sassaman
7032 B.C., Near Modern-Day Titusville,
On Florida’s East Coast
As the end of her mortal life approached, the matriarch of the clan contemplated the future of her people. The world they knew was changing. Water was on the rise, in some places faster than ever. Indeed, the homeland of the matriarch had been much drier when she was a child. When her ancestors arrived in the area, the sea was farther to the east, closer to the morning sun. The coastline had retreated over many generations, as the sea rose, but now groundwater was rising to the surface from below, from what her people called the Lower World. Known as a place of uncertainty and danger, the Lower World was also a place of renewal and rebirth. It was a fitting place to lay the matriarch to rest. She would join her kindred in the watery depths of a shallow pond, where a rejuvenated soul would find purpose in guiding the living into an uncertain future.
The water stories of ancient Floridians are worth hearing because they hold lessons for the future. They are the stories of ancestors of Native Americans who witnessed the rising water of global warming since the last Ice Age, long before written history and the Industrial Revolution. This story of a matriarch’s water burial is imagined but is based on archaeological research, as are the stories that follow. The pond of this tale is known today as Windover, near Titusville. It was encountered accidentally during a construction project in the 1980s and investigated by archaeologists from Florida State University. They determined that Windover was the resting place of scores of Native ancestors who died in the centuries following the last Ice Age. Several other pond cemeteries in Florida attest to a burial tradition that took shape as the land was being flooded by the rising water of a warming planet.
As an archaeologist, I have spent much of the past four decades documenting human history with climate change well before it became a modern concern. In the stories that follow, I highlight some of the challenges ancient Floridians confronted as water rose and the peninsula grew wetter. As you learn about these challenges, you may draw parallels to our own future, as we, too, are faced with the realities of rising seas. Let us start at the end of the Ice Age, when sea level was much lower than today and freshwater was scarce on the broad peninsula that would become Florida.
An arid beginning
10,569 B.C., near modern-day Sarasota
Seeing the huge hole in the earth was awesome to the young boy. He had come upon others, but nothing as big and as deep as this. Creeping close to the edge, he could see a pool of water near the bottom, beyond the ledge of rock that encircled the hole half way down. His grandfather had told him about this place, where water was rising up from the Lower World, and about an ancestor who climbed down a vine to the rock ledge, never to return. “Was the man thirsty?” the young boy asked. “In a way,” replied his grandfather. “He descended into the Lower World to make an offering to the spirits who could bring water to This World. You will understand when you are old like me that his offering was powerful.”
Hard to imagine that Florida was ever a dry place, but it was when ancestors of Native Americans arrived 14,000 years ago. This was near the end of the last Ice Age, when much of the globe’s moisture was solidified in the glaciers of poles and peaks. With sea level about 250 feet lower than it is today, the land mass of peninsular Florida was nearly twice its current size. It was much drier, too, because a lower sea meant lower water tables on land. The peninsula is, of course, one huge platform of limestone, a porous foundation capable of conveying water to the surface.
The first Floridians were tethered to potable water sources, like the sinkhole in the story above, which we know today as Little Salt Spring. But the depth of water in that sinkhole then — about 90 feet below the surface — challenged its use as a well. Farther north, in Florida’s Big Bend region, water was closer to the surface. Today in this region, concentrations of Ice Age stone tools attest to settlements adjacent to sources of reliable water, many of which were also sinkholes. Terrestrial mammals — including now-extinct megamammals, such as mastodon — were tethered to water sources, too, drawing together people and their quarry.
From the start, water meant more than just sustenance. Because water was on the move — rising quickly in the first centuries after the Ice Age, flooding coastlines and saturating land — people must have appreciated its force, its transformational power. It would not be long before freshwater rose to the surface through the limestone across much of the peninsula, freeing communities from the constraints of an arid landscape. Under increasingly wetter conditions, people dispersed across the land and flourished. They also started to bury their dead in freshwater ponds, a signal that emerging water was valued for its supernatural affordances. Water likely was known to them as a medium of renewal, as it is among people worldwide.
With Water Came Shellfish, with
Shellfish Came Shell Mounds
5066 B.C., Near Modern-Day Lake George
on the St. Johns River
Paddling their canoe up the spring run, two brothers from a distant tribe enjoyed watching mullet jump from the clear, cool water. Waterways in their homeland were mostly murky and slack. Lengths of the big river flowing north were occasionally clear, especially at places where water from the Lower World gushed to the surface, such as at this place. The brothers knew it to be a sacred place, where generations of ancestors were buried. At its center was the pool of a massive spring. A tall ridge of shell surrounded the pool in a semicircle. At the mouth of the run, where it met the river, another semicircle of shell twice the size of the first, sat on the riverbank above. Here, the brothers were told, people gathered for great feasts. They were either too early or too late for the annual event, for the place was quiet.
A well-watered Florida meant productive aquatic habitat for all sorts of plants and animals, and the humans who depended on them for food. By about 8,000 years ago in the St. Johns River valley of Northeast Florida, enough groundwater emerged at the surface to support a vast habitat for fish and shellfish. Freshwater aquatic snails were especially prolific, and it did not take long for people to work them into their diet. Evidence that people regularly collected — and presumably ate — aquatic snails is seen in the scores of shell mounds that lined the rivers and lakes of Northeast Florida.
The shell mounds in the narrative above were located along Silver Glen Run, which empties today into Lake George. Like most ancient shell mounds in Florida, those along Silver Glen were mined for road fill in the last century. Over the last decade, University of Florida archaeologists investigated the remnants of the Silver Glen mounds. They found traces of many large pits, which they surmised were used to steam shellfish while the inedible shells ended up in the mounds.
We might presume the size of shell mounds, such as those of Silver Glen, are a direct measure of the dietary dependency on shellfish, but archaeologists are not so sure; shell mounds were sometimes burial mounds, like the one the brothers saw around the spring pool.
Burying the deceased in shell began as the practice of pond burials waned. This shift coincides with the spread of surface water across much of the state. It stands to reason that people’s spiritual relationship with water was undergoing change; the shift to shell mounds suggests so. And yet, the shells of shellfish may have been a symbolic equivalent to water. In fact, one of the early shell burial mounds, at a place called Bluffton, was constructed to resemble a pond, only upside down.
Even shell mounds that were places of habitation had ritual significance. Consider one of the only intact mounds in the region, on Hontoon Island near Deland. A small village at this place was abandoned about 6,000 years ago, evidently after the adjacent channel of the St. Johns River jumped its course during a flood. The shell mound was never resettled, but over the ensuing centuries, people gathered there to feast. Commemorating the former settlement may have been the purpose of the gatherings, but no matter the intent, bringing people together from across the region created and reinforced social ties that could be used in times of need, such as flooding and drought.
Who Are the Ancient Floridians?
Put simply, they are the ancestors of Native Americans. A more specific answer to this question is challenged by histories of population mobility and culture change spanning 14,000 years. We would have to travel north to the homeland of the Creek, for instance, to trace the ancestry of the Seminole and Miccosukee of South Florida. The ancestry of Native Americans we know from the Spanish colonial period of Florida — the Timucua of north Florida and the Calusa of southwest Florida, among others — can be followed back a few centuries through archaeological remains, but with deeper time comes less clarity.
Our primary source of information about native ancestry before the time of written history is archaeology, and that means the material residues of practices, like making pottery or building mounds, that have survived the ravages of time.
As seen in this chart, archaeological time in Florida is divided into three periods: Paleoindian, Archaic, and Woodland. Archaeological cultures featured in the chart (Clovis, Suwannee, Bolen, Kirk, Mt. Taylor, Orange, Glades, St. Johns, Deptford, Swift Creek, Weeden Island) are only some of the many distributed across time and space in Florida. Although archaeologists are skilled at classifying and dating material culture like pottery, they cannot reconstruct with certainty the lineages of particular cultures.
Archaeologists know enough to suggest that ancient Floridians were diverse but well-connected people. Practices like pond burials and shell mounds crossed cultural boundaries, connecting diverse people through shared experiences, many of which can be related to changes in water levels over time.
Changes in both climate and culture came in fits and starts. The blue gradation of this chart symbolizes changes in the rate of sea level rise over time, with 80 percent of postglacial rise occurring over the first five millennia of native history (12,000-7,000 B.C.). Sea rose more slowly over the ensuing millennia, but is projected, according to some estimates, to return to the earlier, rapid rate in centuries to come.
Making Sense of Rising Seas
A.D. 538, near modern-day Cedar Key
It was time to prepare for the big feast. The sun would soon come to a rest on its journey north, opening a portal to the Lower World. As they did every year, people from across the region would gather here to renew their ties to one another. Local residents began to collect the food needed to feed the visitors, and to make the big pots to cook the fish, turtle, and deer they collected. A small group of men would paddle out to the island where the sea birds roosted. There, they would seek the young white ibises who embodied new life. Others would spend days harvesting mullet and other fish from the weir they constructed from oyster shells. These fish, too, were youngsters, drawn to the shoreline to feed in preparation for their first spawning run out to the Gulf. Some years the birds and fish were scarce, but not this year. A bountiful summer solstice feast awaited.
In 2014, University of Florida students digging during an archaeological field school at Shell Mound near Cedar Key uncovered something unusual. In the sand of a dune beneath the mound they discovered large pits filled with bones and pottery, remnants of big feasts dating from about A.D. 400-650. On the menu were mullet, jack, catfish, redfish, and other fish; a variety of turtles; white-tailed deer; and white ibises.
Most of these critters were standard fare, but the ibises were exceptional. Nearly all them were juveniles, evidently taken from their nests. The growth pattern of leg and wing bones suggested they were collected in mid-to late June, the time of summer solstice. The very place where the bones were deposited provided supporting evidence: The dune on which this Shell Mound sat was solstice oriented, its closed-end pointing to the rising summer solstice sun.
To understand the connection between water and sun, we must venture back 4,500 years, when sea level was still well below modern levels. Late Archaic communities of this age settled back from the coast because they knew well the risk of shoreline flooding. Dunes along the coast offered some elevation, but few survived millennia of storm surge. These impressive features took shape during the last Ice Age, when the sea was much lower and the coastline 150 miles to the west. Winds from the southwest pushed surface sand to the northeast, roughly 60 degrees east of north. The resulting parabolic dunes were, by chance, oriented to the rising summer solstice sun.
Worldwide, places on earth that naturally orient to celestial events, such as lunar or solar standstills, garner the attention of people attuned to the sky. Such was the case with dunes in the area of Cedar Key. They were places of burial for Late Archaic (ca. 5,000-3,000 years ago) communities, perhaps considered portals into the Lower World, much like sinkholes and ponds. Making a connection between dunes and movements of the sun may have afforded some semblance of order to otherwise unpredictable climate events, such as hurricanes. Looking to the sky realm, ancient coastal Floridians sought to bring stability to places of occasional flooding.
Late Archaic people of the northern Gulf coast exhumed their dead and relocated them landward before they became vulnerable to flooding. The last such relocation known to archaeologists happened during the ensuing Woodland period (ca. 3,000-1,000 years ago), another time of shifting mortuary practice, this one induced by Hopewell, a Native American religious movement that originated in the Midwest about A.D. 200 but expanded through immigration and trade to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.
With an emphasis on ancestor veneration, the Floridian expression of Hopewell religion involved elaborate burial treatments replete with imported funerary objects, especially pottery; terraformed landscapes of mounds and other constructions with astronomical orientation; and a panoply of zoomorphic imagery on pottery, mostly birds. On the Gulf coast of Florida, where Hopewell was far from its Midwestern heartland, local communities of the Swift Creek and Weeden Island traditions adapted the religion to their own realities, notably the ever-changing relationship between water and earth. It seems appropriate that a wading bird — the white ibis, known to be the last to leave and the first to return from a hurricane — became an important symbol of coastal resilience.
Engineers of Shell and Water
A.D. 1150, near modern-DAY Charlotte
Harbor, in Southwest Florida.
The old man had seen much in his time. He arrived with his family as a toddler to the place where the water flowed across land. Those who had come before had already done much to make the place inhabitable. Mounds of shell jutted up from the brackish water of the coast, connected by causeways built from shell. Between them were ditches to direct water flow and ponds to contain it. Over the course of his long life, the old man and his kindred added new constructions to accommodate the growth of their coastal community. He was especially proud of the canal they had dug between their village and those who lived to the east, towards the great lake. Travel by dugout canoe was greatly improved, although occasionally stalled by alligators sunning themselves on the banks of the canal. More than one of these obstacles was invited home for dinner.
Ancient Floridians took fate into their own hands. Millennia of experience with rising water was manifest in the landscape, indeed it was the landscape in southwest Florida. With shell as building material, people created livable spaces in mangrove swamp and other marshy spots. Constructing places to live was only part of the effort. Coaxing water flow was equally important. The Calusa of the Charlotte Harbor area — the Native Americans who achieved a high level of settlement permanence and social complexity in the centuries before the Spanish arrived — excelled in hydraulic engineering. As documented by archaeologists of the Florida Museum of Natural History, Calusa engineers built “water courts” to trap tidal water in strategic places. With tidal water came fish, such as mullet, which were harvested with nets dragged along the bottom.
Water transportation was important, too. Canals linking settlements afforded direct travel via dugout canoe. Nearshore modifications improved the launching and landing of canoes. Calusa neighbors to the south, in the Ten Thousand Island area, constructed causeways and boat slips of shell that bear resemblance to modern marinas. National Park Service archaeologists have made great strides mapping these incredible constructions, veritable cities of shell.
We know about water travel among the people of southwest Florida from their efforts in hydraulic engineering, but few watercraft have been found.
Only under exceptional conditions are boats preserved, basically if they have remained submerged under water, like so many Spanish shipwrecks.
Such a rare treasure was found far north of Calusa land, at Newnans Lake near Gainesville. A drought in the summer of 2000 exposed more than 100 dugout canoes near the shore. Most dated to the Late Archaic period, when water had risen enough to enable canoe travel across good stretches of north and central Florida, where lakes, ponds, and wetlands now dominate the landscape.
The latest water story of ancient Floridians brings us back to where we started, with the pond burials of the early postglacial era.
Four years ago, a fossil hunter diving for shark’s teeth off the coast of Manasota Key near Venice on Florida’s west coast encountered a surprise: the bony remains of people buried in water 8,000 years ago.
Now 21 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, this aqueous cemetery of ancient Native America was once a freshwater pond, long since inundated by the rising sea. Archaeologists with the Florida Division of Historical Resources noted its similarity to the pond cemetery at Windover. But the difference here is that the Manasota Key cemetery is under sea water, lots of sea water. In its drowned state, the once-freshwater pond of this sacred place now portends one possible future as it testifies to dramatic changes in the distribution of water due to global warming.
What has not changed over the millennia of rising water are the solar cycles of the sky, of the Upper World. The symbolic relationship of the sun, moon, and other celestial bodies to water is a matter of history and culture for ancient Floridians. We may never know precisely how water was valued by them for its spiritual qualities, but it clearly afforded life and, we think, rebirth or renewal.
Because changes in water were erratic, a cyclical sense of time — like the cycles of the sun and moon — lent a certain assurance to what came next. The future was constructed from a known past. From a modern perspective, we may dismiss this logic as quaint, but that belittles the effectiveness of Native American people in dealing with change.
Projected rises of sea level for Florida over the next century have not been experienced by people since the centuries following the last ice age. And that’s just one reason the water stories of ancient Floridians are worth hearing.
Kenneth E. Sassaman is the Hyatt and Cici Brown Professor of Florida Archaeology at the University of Florida. His research in the Lower Southeast has centered on community formation, regional interactions, and technological change among ancient Native Americans. His fieldwork investigates the connection between the experience and expectation of environmental change with a new emphasis on late-19th century Euro- and African-Americans of the Cedar Key, Florida, locality. He has authored or edited nine books, more than 100 articles and chapters, and is co-author of the textbook Archaeology of Ancient North America (Cambridge, 2020).
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