Archaeology and Florida's Native American Heritage

By: Ryan Wheeler, Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research

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Archaeological research provides a valuable look into Florida's history.

Florida’s native heritage is ancient and expansive. The earliest evidence suggests that people first lived in Florida 12,000 years ago, and some scholars believe these first Floridians may have arrived even earlier. Archaeologists have long believed that these people arrived in Florida on foot, following now-extinct Pleistocene animals such as the mastodon. But ideas about these first Floridians are changing and some scientists have suggested that these people may have traveled by dugout canoe and subsisted on smaller animals, including fish and shellfish.

The descendants of these first arrivals flourished here, developing distinctive regional cultures that produced exquisite pottery effigies; complex villages; technologies in bone, shell, wood and stone; and intricate local and long-distance trade networks. Life changed drastically after the arrival of Europeans in the early 16th century. New diseases, missions, warfare and slavery began to erode the daily lives of these people and significantly altered traditional social, political and ceremonial systems. Despite these hardships, the cultures of many Native American groups persisted for 200 years or longer. In some cases the introduction of European metals inspired an artistic renaissance, with traditional forms interpreted in new media. The introduction of European goods also altered traditional relationships within and between neighboring tribes.

In the twilight of the original cultures of native Florida some groups perished, others escaped to neighboring areas in the Southeast and Caribbean, and some joined forces with other Native Americans that moved into the region from the north. Disruption of traditional ways of living in other parts of the American Southeast brought the people now known as Creek, Seminole and Miccosukee.

The native people of Florida left behind dugout canoes, burial mounds and heaps of village refuse known as midden, as well as temple mounds, earthworks and artifacts – all distinct traces of their lives. Archaeology is one way to understand the Native American experience in Florida. Oral, written and living history, anthropology, literature, folklore and the lives of modern Native Americans also offer avenues to understanding this rich heritage. Florida’s Native American heritage can be found in many places and in many ways.

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