When the Europeans first arrived on Florida’s shores in the 1500s, the Calusa were the most powerful people in all of South Florida, and are now considered to be what can only be referred to as engineering geniuses.

They designed and built canals to feed their people and transport goods and lacking local stone or metal, they developed tools and ornaments from the shell and bone they found here. In coastal Lee County, northwest of Fort Myers, the Calusa had a village for more than 1,500 years, and a visit to the Pineland site gives an insight into how this fascinating tribe of Native Americans lived and thrived for so long.

The Calusa Heritage Trail is an almost mile-long path around the site, and winds through mounds, canals and other features, all of which are noted on informational signs along the way. All visitors start out at the Randell Research Center, which is where you can pick up a map that will show you exactly where to go. But even if you are somewhat deficient in map-reading skills, as I am, the path is easily navigated without a map.

There are several midden mounds on the almost 70-acre site, and you can climb up stairs to observational towers on top of them to get a feel for what the Calusa may have seen centuries ago. These mounds were once more than 30 feet tall, and though through the years there have been people who have tried to destroy them, luckily there were others like Donald and Patricia Randell and Captain John Smith who were intent on preserving them.

While there are several mounds on the site that were shell structures, there is one, called the Smith Mound, that was a Calusa burial mound. Unlike the others, this one is made completely of sand. At one time, it was also 30 feet high and more than 300 feet long, and it was surrounded by a canal, similar to a moat around a castle, that connected to another canal.

To me, that connecting canal was one of the most fascinating aspects of the Calusa Heritage Trail. The Calusa dug out a canal that bisected the island, and remember, they were using only their hands and shell tools they had made. Then they took away the dirt from the area in thousands of loads of baskets.

The result of the canal’s completion was that the tribe shortened their distance to the Matlacha Canal, which led to an abundance of fish and shellfish in the estuaries of the Pine Island Sound, by at least 10 miles. This was an amazing engineering feat, especially for that time in history.

That’s why the last sign I read on the trail was especially distressing. The Calusa were eventually driven out of this beautiful home they had created by a myriad of issues—warfare, slavery, disease and displacement. Certainly not the end these brave and innovative people deserved.

Debbie Flessner writes the Live Like a Tourist column for the Sun newspapers. You may contact her at dj@flessner.net.^p

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