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Calusa Dugout Canoe Still A Vital Part of Florida's History

The history of the Calusa

The Calusa, also known as the shell Indians, were the Native American people who had developed from the archaic peoples of the Everglades region. The Calusa entered what is now known as Florida at least 12,000 years ago and settled in the southwest coast of Florida during the European contact.

The area they occupied was previously occupied by the indigenous cultures for hundreds of years, and they lived there from A.D. 1000 up to the middle of the 18th century.

The Calusa were a peculiar group of people. Unlike other Florida tribes, they did not practice agriculture. They built their houses on raised pilings and mounds near water bodies. The Calusa were the first real maritime people in Florida, and fish was their staple diet. The Calusa had well-built men who were four inches taller than the Europeans. While the women wore garments made of palmetto leaves and Spanish moss, the men wore tanned breach of deerskin and fancy belts, which indicated their position in society.

The Calusa's homes were unique as they had no walls, and they were built on stilts and were made of palmetto leaves. They obtained their food through fishing, catching crabs, turtles, clams, and even conchs. The Calusa were the first "shell collectors" as they collected shells and used them for making jewelry, ornaments, utensils, and tools. The remains of their shells have been found in the Southwest side of Florida and have been preserved in various museums in Florida. Many groups have been protecting the remaining shell mounds, while archaeologists have continued to study them to learn about this tribe.

The Calusa people believed three supernatural beings governed them and that people had three souls. These three souls included; someone's reflection, their eyes, and their shadow. The Calusa held on to their beliefs even after the Spanish settlers tried to convert them to Catholicism.

The Calusa existed as a complex chiefdom centered on the capital of Carlos. They were governed by the Paramount Chief, who ruled over all of Calusa territory. Underneath the paramount chiefs were the Nobles and Priests, who included village chiefs who were leaders of independent settlements. All these leaders were loyal to the chief and the priest who was the spiritual leader of the Calusa religion. Underneath these were the average Calusa men and women, and below these were the slaves


The Calusa Dugout Canoe

Canoes were an essential part of the Calusa. They used them to fish, trade, travel, and warfare. Their excellent skills in building these canoes can be attributed to them living near the water. This environment helped them learn how to navigate the water using their 15 feet long dugout canoes. The canoes were made out of a single log using cypress logs and pine. They burnt the center of the log then cut out the charred wood with a robust shell to give it shape. They then used other shell tools to smoothen the surfaces.

They traveled along the Caloosahatchee River, which means "River of the Calusa," and attacked the ships that would be anchored along the shore. Their canoes were so strong that they could sail with them to Cuba and back to Florida. Additionally, the Calusa would sail up and down the west coast and salvage the wealth from shipwrecks.

The canoes that the Calusa used for calm waters had simple prows while those they used for rough seas and projected prows that gave the canoe balance. For them to carry large loads, the Calusa made barges by tying a platform between two large canoes. The smaller canoes were pulled as dinghies.

The Calusa dug canals which served as highways for them and their neighbors, this made their travel efficient. They joined other neighboring communities and served as protected pathways for communication, tribute and trade. The Calusa did not have the right tools for digging. Instead, they used their hands to dig the canals and shells as hand shovels.


The archeological evidence of the Calusa dugout canoe

The archaeologists in Florida have discovered several village sites of the Calusa habitat, such as canals, plazas, mounds, and shell ridges. Though questions about the Calusa and the use of some of these artifacts remain unanswered, early eyewitness accounts and ethnohistorical research, together with new archaeological developments in Florida, can enhance your understanding of the cultural context within which these objects were made and used.


What Happened to the Calusa?

The Calusa tribe died in the 1700s out of attacks from fellow Indian tribes and diseases such as measles and smallpox, which French and Spanish explorers contracted. Though there is no evidence, it is believed that many Calusa people made it to Cuba after the Spanish handed Florida over to the British in 1763. It is also believed many survivors joined the Seminole tribe or were sold into slavery.

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