Seeing Native American mounds in the Ohio River Valley is not unusual, but a rather large mound complex exists—and is a National Historic Landmark—in the small Florida City of Crystal River, a place that wasn’t as typical for mound cultures to exist.
“A lot is known about this site, but probably not as much as you’d like us to know and one of the reasons why is it’s always been treated as a special place,” he said. “There are people buried here and we need not to forget that. For that reason alone, the carefulness in the approach has almost foreclosed on any kind of large-scale work.”
That said, what do we know about the indigenous people who lived at and built the Native American mounds in what is now Crystal River, Florida?
They Were Talented Architects
The indigenous people living in the complex built various structures called midden mounds. They used layers of sand mixed with shell and living debris. Some may think this sounds like you’re living on garbage, Ellis said. “But that’s kind of a relative term isn’t it? If you actively lived in your yard for a couple hundred years sequentially, stuff begins to build up in the soil doesn’t it?”
To build higher, sand was borrowed from sections of the complex, where the land is still much lower than other areas. These depressed areas are visible at Mound H. Ellis noted that the shell in the mounds is primarily oyster. “There are some marsh clams in there and some mercenaria clams, maybe some small conks and wilk in there, but primarily it’s oyster shell and sand mixed in with burned bone and living debris,” he said.
In an attempt to paint a better picture of what life looked like when the Native American mounds were bustling with activity, Ellis said we were only standing on about one-third of what the original mound would have been. The mound would have been about 210 feet wide at the base with sharply tapered edges. When the Spanish and French first came to the area and saw the Native American mounds, Mound A would have been about 40 feet tall with a brightly painted 20-foot tall building on top of it.
“That’s a big piece of building, isn’t it? It was quite a prominent landmark on the coast… that would be quite an impression coming up and down the river,” Ellis said.
They Ate Well
“If you think you can starve to death out here, you’re wrong,” Ellis said. “They’re eating just about everything that’s obtainable. That’s from the river, the marshes, all the way out to the Gulf of Mexico off the oyster reefs, and all kinds of fish.”
Not only were they eating from the water, they had access to the inland forest and all the animals there as well. They weren’t just eating the oysters, they were using the shells for building as well.
“Oyster has good protein value in it and then you’ve got the side advantage of having the shell as a building matrix so it’s hard to go wrong,” Ellis said.
A hunter-gatherer lives in a society that forages for what they eat, which can mean finding and shucking oysters, picking berries, or hunting wild game. Those in an agricultural society grow their food.
As mentioned, the indigenous people who lived and built the Native American mounds at Crystal River ate everything they could find. Some of the shells were even used as building materials, but not all of them. Ellis said some they shucked and left where they gathered them, or at the “grocery store” as he called it.
“There are middens on the coast where there are very few tools and no living debris—it’s just piles of shells, so I suspect that they are doing some on-site shucking,” he said.
While the indigenous people who built the Native American mounds in Southeast Florida were a hunter-gatherer society, there is also evidence that they traded with faraway locations. Ellis said copper has been found that is likely from the Carolinas, crystals from Michigan and Canada that they made into plummets and weights, net sinkers and pendants. There is also evidence of mica at the site from Kentucky and Tennessee as well as large animal teeth from as far away as the Rocky Mountains.
“That material had to travel down through trade networks to be acquired and then buried with the dead,” Ellis said.
Shells from the Gulf of Mexico have also been found in the Ohio River Valley, where Ellis has also worked. “You’re getting this exchange of goods over long distances, likely by intermediary tribes that have trade routes or allow that trade to be conducted and that’s not only how material culture moves, but ideas as well,” he said.
They Buried Their Dead
While some of the Native American mounds at the Crystal River Archaeological State Park are domiciliary mounds, some are burial mounds. “The area is littered with burial mounds, so many of the everyday people were probably not buried here,” Ellis said. “The social elite or maybe important people in clans and lineages are likely buried here.”
He said those who are buried there are buried with “things that were important to those people in their lives or certainly in the community in their clan or their kin felt it would be important to attend the body after death.”
While archaeology and research can tell us many things, there are many it can’t. Here are a few things we don’t know about the indigenous people who built the Native American mounds at Crystal River.
What They Called Themselves
One of the many questions remaining about the culture that built the Native American mounds is what they called themselves. There is no written record of the time, although, as Ellis pointed out, “some of the literature says this is the land of the fierce people.” He wonders if that can be trusted though. They may have been called that by another group that lived farther south and didn’t like those who lived in the Crystal River area.
When asked if the indigenous people who lived at these particular Native American mounds are relatives of the Seminole, Ellis said they are not.
“Unfortunately, we can’t ask these people directly, there are no direct descendants,” Ellis said. Though, as he noted “the Seminoles believe that they’re related, and in a general sense, they are.”
When and Why They Left the Native American Mounds Complex
The Indigenous Peoples who called what is now Crystal River home abandoned the area between 1200 and 1300 AD, but that date isn’t exact, and neither is the reason why. “There are movements of people and some suggestion that that is tied to changes in the climate,” Ellis said.
Those changes were felt all the way up the Mississippi River Valley, even in places like Cahokia, which was close to what is now St. Louis. Cahokia was “the largest metropolitan complex in North America, and that began to go into decline about 1250 AD. Their corn harvests weren’t coming in,” Ellis said. Though there is much debate among researchers about what happened at Cahokia.
What Does It All Mean?
“The takeaway from all of this is these were real people,” Ellis said. “They’re not here to represent themselves and we can’t take this too far because I don’t want to misrepresent the vibrancy of their culture. In the absence of color and in the absence of people conducting their daily lives in and around this community and this complex, it’s hard to fathom through the depths of time just how complex they were.”
“Imagine that [hunting and gathering] lifestyle—that you are continuously and energetically collecting. The surplussing capability of the region across the seasons fosters population growth, which required social controls and mechanisms for order and they were able to harness that social energy to build these things. You can’t think of anything other than ‘oh my goodness, what a culture this was, and we wish we knew more.’”
This story was originally published March 2, 2017.