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Calusa stored fish in 16th-century 'watercourts'

Monday, March 30, 2020 - 4:10pm
Alan Flurry

New research from anthropology professor Victor Thompson sheds light on innovative hunter-gatherer practices in early Florida:

[The] Calusa ruled South Florida for centuries, wielding military power, trading and collecting tribute along routes that sprawled hundreds of miles, creating shell islands, erecting enormous buildings and dredging canals wider than some highways. Unlike the Aztecs, Maya and Inca, who built their empires with the help of agriculture, the Calusa kingdom was founded on fishing.

But like other expansive cultures, the Calusa would have needed a surplus of food to underwrite their large-scale construction projects. This presented an archaeological puzzle: How could this coastal kingdom keep fish from spoiling in the subtropics?

new study points to massive structures known as watercourts as the answer. Built on a foundation of oyster shells, these roughly rectangular enclosures walled off portions of estuary and likely served as short-term holding pens for fish before they were eaten, smoked or dried. The largest of these structures is about 36,000 square feet – more than seven times bigger than an NBA basketball court – with a berm of shell and sediment about 3 feet high. Engineering the courts required an intimate understanding of daily and seasonal tides, hydrology and the biology of various species of fish, researchers said.

The watercourts help explain how the Calusa could rely primarily on the sea.

Compelling results from a long-term research project. Congratulations to Thompson and colleagues at the Florida Museum of Natural History.



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