There are things we do because we feel we should. There are things we do because we want to share, with others, a “gold nugget” that we’ve enjoyed. And, of course, we do things because they’re fun. Isn’t it great when all three of these coincide? This last weekend was one of those occasions. The annual Calusa Heritage Day was held at the University of Florida’s Randell Research Center on Pine Island, Florida. Yep, I know there are multiple Pine Islands in the Sunshine State. This one is located near Fort Myers and Sanibel.
The event derives its name from the Indian tribe that dominated the southern portion of Florida for nearly 2000 years. It’s a celebration of their civilization. We often overlook the complexity and achievements of our native American fore-bearers. The Randell Research Center, a fifty-four acre archaeological site, provides ample proof that discounting those people’s achievements is a major error. The Randell family donated the land and the public at large owes this family a large thank you. It takes far-sighted, generous individuals to donate bay-front property in the center of one of the most desirable retirement and playground areas in the state.
The site is unique in that it is right on the water and the sandy soil permits salt water intrusion. This results in the preservation of materials that would normally succumb to oxidation and other forces time exerts on wood, seeds, etc. For example, it was widely believed the Spanish imported the papaya to Florida. Thanks to the conditions at Randell, 1900 year old papaya seeds have been found in the middens (mounds). There weren’t any Conquistidores spreading seeds back then. The Calusa were sea-faring, mound-building folk that lived by fishing and gathering. For this reason, they kept their villages in close proximity to the water. Because the Gulf of Mexico’s level has changed six feet in the last 2000 years, the settlements yo-yoed back and forth. Dropped and buried items were preserved. (The Gulf of Mexico has been four feet higher and two feet lower than it is today during that time period.)
The Calusa had a highly efficient military establishment, very evolved spiritual beliefs, and were first-class engineers. Their engineering prowess is exemplified by a two-and-a-half mile canal they constructed across the island that was eight feet deep, thirty feet wide and featured recharge ponds… built so they didn’t have to paddle their canoes around the eighteen mile long island. They did this with shell tools!
Calusa Heritage Day celebrates this society through speakers led by UF’s Dr. Bill Marquardt, the sites director, Dr. Karen Walker, and many other noted historians and scientists that share their knowledge with the people that attend. And, that’s anyone who wants to learn. My small part in the celebration is the “Calusa Tastings.” We prepare the foods that the Calusa ate over open fires. Those attending get the opportunity to slurp an oyster, savor a clam, munch on a mullet, pop in a mouthful of papaya, chomp on chili peppers, or enjoy some heart of palm.
It’s too late to participate in Calusa Heritage Day this year, but you can visit the Randell Research Center all year round, enjoying artifacts displayed there and tours either guided… or by making the site path’s circuit, reading the explanations on display podiums. It’s a “do not miss” for all visitors to southwest Florida and all that’s required to enjoy this is a small donation that makes it affordable to everyone. Heritage Day will be back next March. Visit Margi, Jeanelle, Frank, Tom, Bo and me then. (That’s my terrific “tastings” team.) We’ll be shucking oysters and grilling mullet for all to try.
I’ve included a few pics to pique your appetite. For more info Google “Randell Research Center” or visit http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/rrc/.
AND come visit me the Southwest Florida Reading Festival this Saturday, March 16th from 10 AM until 4 PM at the Riverside Event Center in downtown Ft. Myers.