Florida’s Prehistoric Seafood Lovers

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Excerpt from Seafood Lover’s Florida: A Conversation with David Burns, Geologist/Archeologist at Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center.

Florida’s first people likely arrived about 12,000 years ago. Back then its western coastline extended out 60 to 100 miles into what is now part of the Gulf of Mexico. There is plenty of evidence that Florida’s aboriginals, primarily coastal dwellers, were highly dependent on fish and shellfish for their survival. The first Europeans arrived in the 15th Century, and within 300 years all of Florida’s original inhabitants were gone, mostly wiped out by diseases brought over by the Europeans for which the Florida aboriginals had no developed immunities.

Career geologist David Burns (Master’s degree in Geology) became interested in archeology in the early 1990’s, and began pursuing it in earnest when he started working with the Central Gulf Coast Archeological Society in Florida. In 2001 he was invited to work at Weedon Island on Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg, where the new Weedon Island Cultural Center was going to be built. The Center opened in 2002, but the first Weedon Island excavations began in 1923 under the auspices of Dr. Jesse Walter Fewkes, Director of The Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institute.

I got to sit down with David Burns and learn about some of Florida’s earliest seafood gatherers and consumers. David explained, “The Weedon Island culture is known for its high-quality pottery. Pottery is the main thing archeologists use in Florida to identify time frames and cultures. A lot of it is based on design. For instance, the earlier pottery had fiber, like Spanish moss, mixed in the clay.”

It seems we can get the best picture of how these people lived by rummaging through their trash: digging in mounds called “trash middens”.

“When we excavate we usually find shells: oysters, scallops, clams, and whelks,” David tells me. “They made good use of whatever they had. They couldn’t exactly run down to the nearest Publix or Home Depot so they had to be pretty inventive. They would use clam shells for bowls, and whelk shells for spoons or ladles. We find turtle bone, deer bones, snake bones. The middens: their trash mounds, is where we get the best idea of how they ate, what they subsided on, what time of year they collected it and consumed it. Sometimes you’ll see a layer of oysters, and then maybe a layer of scallops, indicating what was most plentiful at a certain time. Of course, today we go to a restaurant and gladly pay big bucks for fresh oysters, but I can picture them back then saying, ‘Oh, we’re not having oysters again are we?’”

Apparently they weren’t much of an agrarian culture. There was no need for farming. “It was mostly gathering. Most everything was right there for them. All they had to do was collect it. They did apparently travel some, however, to collect things like squash, and other gourd plants.”

I asked David how they fished. “They had multiple ways. Sometimes we’ll find what look like hooks made out of bone-like carved deer bone. Another type of hook that they made was like a bone hairpin, tapered at both ends and tied in the middle. They would put bait on it, and when the fish would bite it the tapered ends would hang in the fish’s mouth. Sometimes they would spear fish. Another way they fished was with netting. They also had baskets with an open end where they could funnel the fish when the tide was going out. They were pretty ingenious, and seemed to be adept at making use of their environment.”

Who were they? “We call them Tocobagans, but of course we don’t know what they called themselves. They covered the Tampa Bay area, around Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, but not too far south. There was the Manasota culture down in the Sarasota area (earlier than the Tocobagan). If you went further south there was the Calusa. They all seemed to have their defined territories. The Tocobagans were here in this Weedon Island area from about 200 AD to 900 AD. There was contact and commerce between groups, and a surprising amount of trade. We find shells up in the Carolinas, Alabama, and Georgia. And we find copper, and lot of flint and other stones, from up north, down here. The rivers were like their freeways, and that gave them easy access using their long, log canoes.”

What did they prefer to eat? “We find the shells and broken pottery, but rarely find any remains (of the actual food). We can collect what’s called a column sample, and do a flotation, where we soak it in water, so that seeds and other stuff will float up to the top. Then we can get some idea of the vegetation they ate. For shellfish we find a lot of oyster, some scallops, some clams, mussels, and whelks. They also ate a lot of mullet, some sea trout, and catfish. And they also drank what we call the “Black Drink” made from dried leaves from the cassina bush. It was kind of like their espresso.”

How did they prepare their food? “They would build a fire and cook directly in it or smoke fish over it on racks. Mostly they put big pots close to or in a fire, filled it with whatever they had collected: oysters, clams, sea grapes, and let it stew all day. We know that because of the soot we find on the outside of pots. They also used the pots for storing and transporting food.”

David and other archeologists at Weedon Island continue to unearth the remains of this slice of early Florida civilization and learn more about how the Tocobagans lived. One project they are working on currently is carefully excavating a forty-foot-long canoe found here, that may actually pre-date the Tocobagans. The excavation should be complete, and the canoe should be on display at Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center by the time this book goes to print. (Update: The canoe has been fully excavated, and is on display now.)

One thing I find remarkable is how much of these original inhabitants’ seafood preparation and eating habits still survive today. A big pot of oysters, clams, scallops, and sea grapes, stewing all day over a fire, sounds an awful lot like a Low Country Boil. And cooking on and smoking over an open fire is not much different than backyard barbecuing today. I’m also impressed with their inventiveness. Shells were cleverly fashioned into eating utensils and cooking tools, and fish bones were turned into fish hooks. And their basket nets, that captured fish by funneling them during outgoing tides, is very similar in function to the trawling nets modern shrimpers use today.

Bruce Hunt

Bruce will be discussing Seafood Lover’s Florida Saturday, December 17, from 10:00 AM – 12:00 at Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center.

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