All  
Artist's conception of Calusa people preparing for fishing in the estuary. Source: Image by Merald Clark.

Grand Ceremonial House of the King of the Calusa People Has Been Located in Florida

Print

The National Geographic has reported that archaeologists have discovered an ancient Native American king’s house in Florida. A team has uncovered the foundations of a large dwelling and this is allowing them to reconstruct the house. The find is being linked to a powerful Native American people, the Calusa that have fascinated historians and anthropologists for centuries. The rediscovery of the site is allowing experts to have a better understanding of the Calusa civilization and raising questions about the possibility of non-agricultural people having the ability to form states and kingdoms in the past.

The Calusa

The Calusa were a Native American people who were indigenous to the south-west of modern Florida and it is believed that they originated in the Everglades region and established a strong kingdom that covered a significant area of what is now modern Florida. The Native American kingdom fiercely resisted attempts by the Spanish to colonize them and they also rejected attempts by missionaries to convert them to Christianity. They managed to defy the Spanish for many decades, but Old World diseases imported into Florida weakened Calusa society and left it vulnerable to attack and so, it is speculated, it collapsed before the end of the 18 th century.

Calusa influence extended over most of south Florida in the sixteenth century. (Image Courtesy of Florida Museum of Natural History)

Calusa influence extended over most of South Florida in the sixteenth century. (Image Courtesy of Florida Museum of Natural History )

Their society was based on fishing and hunting and it was very sophisticated according to Spanish chronicles. It has long fascinated researchers ‘because they were a fisher-gatherer-hunter society that attained unusual social complexity’, according to MSN News . The fact that the Native Americans could establish a kingdom based only on fishing contradicted many established theories. Some anthropologists refuted claims that the Calusa had established a kingdom and said they were only a hunter-gatherer society.

Uncovering the Calusa King’s House

Victor Thompson of the University of Georgia and his team were excavating a hilltop on an island in Estero Bay, just south of Fort Myers, Florida, in the hope of gaining a better understanding the enigmatic Calusa when they made the discovery. They have since published their findings in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology .

It had long been suspected that the royal dwelling reported by the Spanish had once been located there. The team discovered an impressive network of 150 post holes and foundation trenches that suggested a large dwelling. Based on the description of some Spanish visitors to the Calusa in the 16 th century, the house of the king could hold hundreds of people. The size of the site and the literary evidence indicated that the House of the Calusa monarch has been found.

Artist's conception of the Calusa king's house in 1566. Image by Merald Clark. Courtesy of Florida Museum of Natural History

Artist's conception of the Calusa king's house in 1566. Image by Merald Clark. Courtesy of Florida Museum of Natural History

The team from Georgia University reconstructed the royal residence, according to the National  Geographic ‘mostly via the post holes and foundation trenches left on Mound Key’.  The king’s house was truly massive, approximately 80 feet (24.4 meters) in length and 65 feet (19.8 meters) wide and covered the summit of the island’s highest hill. It was believed that the Calusa used pine wood imported from elsewhere in Florida in the building of the dwelling.

A reconstruction of a Calusa chickee and terraces, on display at the Florida Museum of Natural History. (Public Domain)

A reconstruction of a Calusa chickee and terraces, on display at the Florida Museum of Natural History. ( Public Domain )

The excavation shows that the Calusa had great building capabilities and they could mobilize a great many people and resources for construction projects. This would suggest a highly organized and hierarchical society even though it was based primarily on fishing.  The size of the building and the use of pine wood would suggest access to resources via trade and that the Calusa were integrated into a larger trade network. The carbon dating of fragments of the structure show that it was built and extended over a period of 500 years. The house would seem to prove that the Calusa had indeed established a powerful political entity or kingdom before the coming of the Europeans to Florida.

Replica Calusa artifacts. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Replica Calusa artifacts. ( CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )

Revealing More of the Calusa Kingdom

The claims by the Spanish that the Calusa were a kingdom was one that was not accepted by many modern experts. They could not accept how a society based on fishing could establish a complex society. However, the discovery of the King’s House in Florida means that it is highly likely that the Calusa had the power and the organizational capabilities of a kingdom or state, even though they were not an agricultural community. This is not only telling us much more about the Native Americans but demonstrating that the early Spanish accounts of the people can be reliable. More importantly, the discovery of the great house may force anthropologists and others to redefine what constituted a kingdom and that they were not solely based on agricultural communities.

Top image: Artist's conception of Calusa people preparing for fishing in the estuary. Source: Image by Merald Clark. Courtesy of Florida Museum of Natural History

By Ed Whelan

Next article