What does archeology tell us about Indians

An Indian empire reveals its secret

They erected monumental buildings and lived in a complex society - the mysterious Calusa ruled southern Florida for centuries. Now researchers have solved the riddle of how the Indian people could reach such a high level of development without agriculture: the basis of their culture was evidently ingenious fishing techniques. The Calusa drove fish from lagoon areas into large basins of their main settlement and kept them there as a living supply. This created excess food, which enabled the development of complex structures, say the researchers.

The traces of the Calusa empire in southwest Florida are still clearly visible today. The center of Indian culture was in Estero Bay and is known today as "Mound Key". Once there was a settlement there, which was characterized by artificial elevations (mounds), wide canals and other impressive building structures. The ruler's seat was a building on a particularly high mound. Its dimensions illustrate the high level of development of the Calusa Empire: According to Spanish reports from the 16th century, the building should have provided space for 2,000 people.

The Calusa also represented a formidable military power, according to tradition. As a result, they dominated their neighboring peoples and were able to withstand the pressure of the Spaniards for a comparatively long time. The Calusa culture existed in this way until the end of the 17th century and remained largely isolated. Afterwards it was finally completely destroyed by the increasing conflicts in the wake of colonialism and by diseases that were brought in. Many features of their culture are therefore unknown.

A highly developed culture without agriculture?

It is clear, however, that in contrast to the Aztecs, Maya and Inca, agriculture was not the basis of life for the Calusa. Finds show that they mainly fed on fish. So far, however, this has puzzled archaeologists. Because it is assumed that for the development of higher forms of culture, significant food surpluses and a certain amount of stockpiling are necessary. Was this possible through fishing? And if so, how did people save the fish in the warm, humid subtropics from spoiling?

The answer is now presented by a team of US scientists. As part of their study, they examined two massive rectangular building structures that are emerging at Mound Key. These are areas bounded by dams, each covering over 3300 square meters. They flank an approximately 30 meter wide strait that divides Mound Key. The team investigated these structures and the surrounding areas using modern methods of site exploration and excavations.

Driven into storage basins

As the researchers report, the results of their research show that the rectangular structures were water-filled basins made from oyster shells. They had openings to the strait that enabled the Calusa to drive schools of fish through nets from the lagoon into the enclosures, which were then closed with a kind of gate. The live fish in the basin could then serve as a supply for the Calusa for a certain period of time.

As the researchers point out, planning the structures required a thorough understanding of the daily and seasonal tides, as well as the behavior of certain fish species. Bones and scales in the sediments of the basins showed that the Calusa mainly drove schooling fish such as mullets, the sea bream species Lagodon rhomboides and herrings into the basin.

Cultural basis: abundant food supply

The researchers also found traces of transport routes from the basins to the elevated settlement areas. This indicates that the fish were not only eaten fresh, but also dried or smoked. This presumably ensured a reliable and abundant food supply that contributed to society's efficiency. The radiocarbon dating of the finds shows that the water basins were built between 1300 and 1400 AD. As the researchers report, this coincides with the expansion phase of the ruler's seat.

"What is special about the Calusa is that most of the other societies that reached a comparable level of complexity and power were agricultural crops," says co-author William Marquardt of the University of Florida at Gainesville. "But the research results over the past 35 years have shown that the Calusa have developed a politically complex society with sophisticated architecture, religion, the military, specialists, long-distance trade and social rank structures - and all of this without being farmers," says the scientist. As it turns out, the secret of this amazing Indian culture was the clever use of fish as a resource.

Source: Florida Museum of Natural History, specialist article: PNAS, doi: 10.1073 / pnas.1921708117

April 16, 2020

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