Recently I have been looking at Chokoloskee Island. I have a copy of the archaeology report from the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, Inc. of South Florida. Most of their work was done 25 years ago, but it has recently been compiled and published. I guess there is a great backlog of reports due on Collier County.
I will talk about the archaeology, and then what I have discussed with Herman Trappman, an artist who I have mentioned here many times.
The Ten Thousand Islands in southwest Florida are a unique environment. It is the largest and most productive estuary in North America. The amount of plant and animal life is impressive beyond belief.
Most of this area is now part of state and national parks and preserves. Marco Island and Chokoloskee are now the only islands among the Ten Thousand Island chain that have humans living on them. But it was not always that way. Many people lived among the islands 100 years ago, until the federal parks were established and forced them out. Many of these people had substantial houses, and there was even a big settlement at Fakahatchee Bay. Bother there and several other places in the islands are remains scattered about of water cisterns and septic tanks, and an occasional cemetery. And before that, is evidence of human habitation for the past 5,000 years. Horr’s Island south of Marco shows a pattern of habitation that was year round, back to 5,000 years ago. This shows how abundant the food was, that they did not have to make seasonal moves. But the real big mound building phase started in the islands about 1,200 years ago.
Below: looking down on Chokoloskee Island from the north. A road connects from a causeway from Everglades City. From a postcard that I picked up in the Smallwood store.
From the report on this area by the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, the pottery found on Chokoloskee Island is a unique. It is different than the Calusa further north and Glades pottery. You have probably heard about the spectacular remains of the Calusa found on Marco Island by Hamilton Cushing in the 1890s. The Calusa down here were a distinct and different Calusa than up at Mound Key in Estero Bay. Pottery artifacts found in this chain show a distinct cultural boundary that is different from Mound Key. But building patters and mound island construction are the same as in Mound Key, and all the way up through Charlotte Harbor.
The distance between Marco Island and Chokoloskee is about 16 miles as the crow flies. But every three to five miles is a huge mound complex, with smaller satellite mounds and middens in the area. Chokoloskee was the second biggest island mound complex, behind Marco Island. I have talked it over with artist Hermann Trappman, and he believes that Florida had one of the great, lost civilizations of the world.
But even today, little archaeology work has been done in the Ten Thousand Islands. The most extensive study was by Hamilton Cushing and C.B. Moore, over 100 years ago. This area has not been studied very closely, even if there are hundreds of recorded aboriginal sites. The environment is inhospitable for anyone to conduct archaeology field work; probably the most difficult of any place in the United States. The heat, weather, mosquitoes, and choking plant grown with boat access the only way to get in and out, make it difficult.
Below: the last remaining mounds on Chokoloskee can clearly be seen today. A fence keeps people off the private property that is on the southeast corner of the island.
Chokoloskee Island was the first archaeological site for Collier County that was cataloged for the site files in Tallahassee with the state bureau of historic preservation. Thus it is site number 8CR1. 8 is for the state of Florida, CR is for Collier County, and it is site number one in Collier County. The site file office now has roughly 2,000 cultural and archaeological sites for Collier County.
The word Chokoliska is Hitchiti (Seminole/Miccosukee) language for “old house,” which means that the Seminoles and Miccosukee are aware of the previous habitation here. I wonder what they had seen? The entire 90 acre island was artificially created by the Calusa (or whoever the early mound builders were.)
We are not sure when Chokoloskee was first inhabited, but it could be as far back as 4,500 years. Most of the mound island complexes in the Ten Thousand Island chain were abandoned about 1300 AD, most likely due to climate change. (That is a whole other discussion for another time.) Chokoloskee seems to have lasted a couple of centuries later than the rest. There are no artifacts from the Spanish period found on Chokoloskee unlike other islands in the area.
The top layers of pottery/ceramic artifacts excavated on Chokoloskee are from about 1400 AD. It is mostly locally manufactured pottery. There is a small amount of ceramics that were manufactured elsewhere, which indicates that the mound complex on Chokoloskee might have been a regional capital. (I am not going to compare it or analyze it to Marco Island for now.) The presence of non-local pottery fragments indicates a trade that may extend over wider areas of Florida and down to the keys.
The oldest ceramic fragments date about 500 AD. In overall native periods, these are from cultures active in Weeden Island and Mississippian periods, the height of mound building.
Coming full circle to what I was talking about earlier, I passed this report on to Hermann Trappman. Hermann does his artwork on computer now, due to extreme asthma that prevents him from using paints. So he took the archaeology report, and made a 3D map of Chokoloskee Island. Herman and I have been discussing the people of southwest Florida every time we meet with each other.
Herman was so enthusiastic about the report that he whipped up a new painting of what the island might have looked like at its heyday. This is a mound city right on the water. He must have not gotten any sleep for a couple days working on these.
This is not a complete painting, because Hermann subsequently adds more people, animals, fish, and cultural objects. I have shrunk the image down so it will not look good if anyone tries to take the image and use it. Hermann has had a lot of problems with people using his images without his permission. Please respect his copyright.
Below: Tending nets around Chokoloskee.