News-Sun photo by CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY Early Europeans were confounded by Florida's terrain. There was more water than land, making mapping difficult. Note the marked mountains which don't exist, and no sign of Lake Okeechobee, which does.
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published: Sunday, February 03, 2013
When conch shells were sharpened into knives
By CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY
LAKE PLACID -- "Most people are surprised there's archeology in Florida," Catherine Smith told her audience Thursday.
In fact, not only are there thousands of years of history to study, but the indigenous people of Florida have confounded scientists and upset long held theories, she said.
Smith is a graduate student at Florida Atlantic University and resident at the Lawrence E. Will Museum of the Glades. She gave a presentation, sponsored by the Lake Placid Historical Society and held at the Woman's Club, Thursday about the Glades Period (500 BC - 1500 AD) indigenous people.
Smith said a complex, highly sophisticated society known as the Belle Glade Culture developed in Central Florida, populating an area roughly from north of Avon Park to south of Clewiston, and all around Lake Okeechobee. Because its people lived in harmony with the waters of Central Florida, they are also known as the Water People.
People of the water
Smith put their story into a geographical context.
At the time Spanish explorers first arrived in Florida, she said, there was more water than land. Lakes and rivers mostly drained south into the Everglades creating wet lands and swamps that blended into bays, rivers and lakes.
Lake Istokpoga was much larger -- today's caladium fields well under water -- and part of a well traveled water route to Lake Okeechobee, which was also much bigger. Long gone rivers created significant flow through the lakes. Travelers could go in any direction, which was convenient for locals, but confusing to strangers.
Spanish explorers go in circles
The terrain was hot, harsh and flat, flat, flat. Stretches of saw grass, palmetto palms, cypress swamps and wet prairies went on to the horizon, broken only by occasional hammocks of live oak or pine.
The first Spaniards found themselves overwhelmed in the beginning. Not only were conditions hard, but finding their way and creating maps were almost impossible. The vast expanses of water and saw grass confused them. They kept going in circles and getting lost.
"It was almost impossible to figure where you were in Florida," Smith told the audience. "It was hard to get to the interior."
That is if you were a European.
The Water People, having settled in the Lake Okeechobee basin thousands of years earlier, had no such difficulty. Not only did they navigate the area with ease, they improved it and adapted it to their use, building a network of canals and slews connected into a widespread water borne network, "like Venice, but on a bigger scale," Smith said.
"While Europeans struggled, the indigenous people took a tough environment and mastered it," she added. "That's pretty impressive, because it was not an easy place to live. They couldn't grow crops because the sand had no nutrients. They had no rock or stone. The Water People were resourceful, because they had to be."
Upsetting scientific theories
Smith explained how The Belle Glades Culture has revolutionized scholarly thinking. For decades scientists believed it was the development of agriculture that allowed societies to advance.
She said. "We know that's not true, because of what happened in Florida. There had to have been more going on."
The fact that communities in Florida -- which were hunter-gathers exclusively - not only thrived, but became master engineers with power over others, upsets that long held idea. A new hypothesis, Smith explained, suggests that instead of agriculture, settling in one place with a stable food supply may be what makes it possible for a society to advance.
In any case, Smith said the Water People were inventive, creatively adapting local resources.
They were fine engineers, Smith added, pointing to the extended networks of canals. Even more impressive, she said, are the many burial and habitation mounds scattered throughout Central Florida.
Many people, Smith said, think of the mounds as primitive because they were constructed out of local muck and soil.
"But these mounds were massive -- huge," she said. From the remains it is estimated many had walls 20 feet high. Building them required a large workforce and tons of material.
"To even have the idea to build something up, in such a flat land, took imagination," Smith said. "It took a design plan and math to create their mounds and community centers," adding it also required coordinated team work. We know this because all the remains have the same layout, careful workmanship and balanced portions, she said.
The Water People were practical, Smith said. Early on they recognized their central location allowed control of the water traffic, and so to demands of tribute.
Blood flowed in the water
Smith said the Belle Glade Culture was not laid back and passive. Evidence suggests it was just the opposite -- aggressive and territorial.
For example, when the Spanish came ashore, indigenous people on the coast -- who were themselves fierce -- warned the Europeans not to go into the interior. Worse people live there, they warned. Don't go near the lake, bad things happen there. People who go, the Spanish were told, do not came back.
Smith said skulls recovered in the area show the kind of damage that is caused by jamming a severed head on a stick. She said it is highly likely these skulls were stuck on poles as a warning for strangers.
As it turned out, the Spanish got their bearings and proceeded to spread disease and wreck havoc. By the time the British gained control of the peninsula in 1763 the last of the Water People in the Okeechobee area were fleeing to Key West and from there to Cuba.
The Belle Glade Culture was gone.
For years the land remained empty of people, until Creeks, escaping the increasingly crowded and hostile states of Alabama and Georgia, began their migration into Florida, leading to the rise of the Seminole and Miccosukee nations.
Catherine Smith Lecture (by: Preston H. Colby - 2/3/2013)
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