Dolphins and the Calusa

In the last entry, “Why De Porpoise’s Tail is on Crossways”, we looked at how an African-American storyteller highlighted the bottlenose dolphin’s prodigious speed in early 20th century Florida. Today, we’re going much further back in Florida’s history to learn about how the Calusa people of the medieval Florida Keys recognised the dolphin’s role as the greatest hunter in the Gulf.


Calusa fishermen (reconstruction by Merald Clark) © Florida Museum of Natural History

Known as the “Shell Indians” because they made much of their jewellery and tools from seashells, the Calusa are unusual among the world’s hierarchical societies in that their economy was based almost entirely on fishing instead of agriculture. Developing out of the early Glades culture, the Calusa’s stratified and densely populated society started taking shape in southeastern Florida in the ninth century AD. To put this in a world perspective, that is the same time that England and Scotland began to take on the shapes we know today, with Alfred the Great conquering large parts of England and the Pictish kingdom being absorbed by neighbouring Gaels to form the kingdom of Alba. By the time the Spanish came to Florida in the 16th century, the Calusa’s king presided over a society with a powerful military presence in southern Florida and a rich ceremonial culture.


Calusa limestone sinker © British Museum

Although our understanding of how the Calusa viewed the world around them is filtered through the accounts of Spanish invaders, material culture provides additional clues that help to fill out the picture. Jack Davy, an anthropologist at University College London, recently wrote a paper which shed light on how the Calusa’s tools help us understand how these powerful fisherfolk conceived of their own activities in relation to the animal world. The object pictured above was used as a sinker to weigh down gill nets. Its exact provenance is unknown, so it might date to any period within the millennium of Calusa habitation of Florida. However, it is identifiable as a bottlenose dolphin through the presence of its snout and dorsal fin. Davy theorizes that Calusa fishermen carved this sinker into a dolphin shape because they were acknowledging and possibly even channeling their greatest competitor:

The sinkers spent their working lives under water, in the silt and sand of the channels of the Ten Thousand Islands. They were not made beautiful so that people could stare at them, they were made to evoke and connect with the apex hunter of the Florida coast, the graceful, agile and – to a fish – deadly bottlenose dolphin. Indigenous Floridian fishermen, living in a society whose survival and prosperity depended on their professional skills, would have seen the dolphin as both competition and inspiration, and by carving net sinkers in the shape of their aquatic rivals they were perhaps attempting to impart a little of the strength and ability of the dolphin into their own efforts.


Reconstruction of Calusa chief’s home, with stylized bottlenose dolphins

Today the great fisherfolk who once saw the dolphin as a respected rival are often forgotten. The Calusa resisted Spanish attempts to convert and conquer them. In the early 18th century, however, the immense pressures that colonization exerted on native populations pushed groups from further north into Calusa territory, and the Calusa were defeated by Creek and Yamasee warriors and sold into slavery in the British colonies and Cuba. The groups who replaced the Calusa formed a new culture known to this day as the Seminole. Just as we still tell stories of Alfred the Great and the Picts, it is important to keep the Calusa alive in modern memory to do justice to the great societies of America’s past.



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