Try to imagine Fort Myers Beach 2,000 years ago. No buildings, no roads, no electricity. Yet people lived here then – a hardy race of American Indians called the Calusa. These mighty warriors battled mosquitos, hurricanes and the sub-tropic heat until they were finally wiped out by diseases and guns brought to our emerald shores by European explorers. Most of their history went with them until archeologists began discovering bits and pieces of pottery and shells in areas of Pine Island, Mound Key and the location where our own Mound House now sits. But how did they live? What did they eat? The answer to those questions can be found by participating in a unique new tour, Calusa Cuisine, now offered at the Mound House by Education Coordinator Penny Jarrett.
“This is the first of a series of programs that we plan to offer over the next few months,” Jarrett told us on a cloudy cool Tuesday afternoon this week. “Today we are going to learn how these resourceful people ate and where they got the means to sustain themselves.”
Penny told the group of five of us how the Mound House property originally encompassed 14-16 acres – much larger than the current site of 3.5-acres – and how the Calusa utilized everything they had access to from the back bay to the Gulf of Mexico.
“They got about 85% of their food from the back bay – things like oysters, which grow on the prop roots of red mangroves, Florida fighting conchs, lightning whelks and fish,” she said. “They used black mangroves for firewood. They were basically a hunter-gatherer society, even though they settled here they were pretty much nomadic.”
Jarrett told us how the Calusa used the shells from lightning whelks to carve out their dug out canoes, which were made from pine and cypress.
“They used these to gather conchs in the grass flats and mud flats in the back bay,” she said. “It was pretty easy pickings back then – their diet was high in protein which is probably why they were so much taller than the Spaniards.”
Penny explained that the Calusa first developed the middle part of the island – where Mound House is – and then took over Mound Key, an island roughly 4 miles to the southeast.
“That became the capital of the Calusa people,” she said. “They also utilized the tributaries that fed into the Caloosahatchee River (a name that means – literally – Calusa River River – as ‘hatchee’ is the Indian word for river). This area was abundant in deer, raccoons and birds.”
At one point, the Calusa empire stretched from the Florida Keys to Tampa.
“When the Spaniards came, they recorded some of the Calusa background, but nothing about the plants and very little of their history – most of which was oral,” Jarrett said. “Now archeologists have discovered all sorts of things, like how they ate things that were easy to grow – ‘bird pepper’ or summer squash, and papaya.”
Jarrett displayed a basket made from the cabbage palm and showed us how the Calusa used this versatile tree to make everything from clothes to mats.
“They also used sable palms to make fishing nets, and created mortar and pestles from clay they found along the Caloosahatchee River,” she said. “These allowed them to crush things like cinnamon and chili peppers into their food to add spice.”
Penny then took us on a short tour of the Mound House grounds, and showed us how the Calusa scraped thorns off the cactus pear to grill, coat with oil from animal fat, and eat.
“Two things they did not have – because these were imported later – were bananas and coconut palms,” she said. “They used gourds to store water, and all of the remains from their meals were put in a big pile which, along with shells they added, were used to build on when they wanted to construct a home.”
Check out fun tours like this and more by going to www.moundhouse.org.
Keri Hendry Weeg