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Marco Island and the Wonderful Muspa Civilization in Southwest Florida

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Last week I visited the Marco Island Historical Museum to see what they had on the Calusa. It opened a year ago, and they have rotating exhibits and the permanent exhibits about Marco Island.

There is even an exhibit of the development of the island in the 1980's that was built over the remains of shell mounds. The real estate brochure said, "See the beach from on top of an Indian shell mound!"

Below: the museum--I find the thatched roof impressive.

First off, I want to say that it is a beautiful facility and I wish them the best. The staff and volunteers were very nice and courteous. A lot of money was put into developing a nice looking museum, and I am sure that the staff and volunteers are very proud of it. It was obviously built with a lot of love for having a museum, and has great potential. Marco Island needs a museum to tell the story of the great civilization that is underneath their expensive homes and boat docks.

Unfortunately, what they have are exhibits that need a lot more research. I left with the feeling that nothing has been learned about the Muspa civilization on Marco Island since Frank Hamilton Cushing found these magnificently carved wooden objects in 1895.

Muspa is the name of the people on Marco Island that we have from Spanish records. They were distinctly different from the Calusa until about 1300 CE. From archaeological evidence, all the great mound complexes in the Ten Thousand Islands were abandoned around 1300 CE. (I explained the reason why they were abandoned in an earlier blog about a year ago, when describing the Pineland Mounds.) Not all islands would be occupied during later periods. Only two places in the Ten Thousand Island have yielded Spanish artifacts, and those were at Addison Key/Addison Bay, and Chokoloskee Island. The wooden objects that Cushing recovered date from 500-1200 CE. The wooden masks are about a thousand years older than when the Spanish found Carlos and his kingdom on Mound Key.

So, there are differences between the Muspa on Marco Island, and the Calusa on Mound Key. They shared the same environment and probably similar in culture, but have specific geographical differences. Unfortunately, you will not find this interpreted in the museum. We should not call the Muspa people the same as Calusa without knowing more about them.

The information given in the museum describes the Calusa (inferring that the Muspa are the same) as a fierce and warlike tribe that practiced human sacrifice. They routinely attacked their neighbors for sacrifice victims. If the chief's son died, they would kill all the children in the village. They worshiped many gods including an anthropomorphic cat figure. The masks were either of gods or former chiefs and shamans. This is an unfortunate interpretation, because none of this information is supported by archaeological evidence. I am surprised that they did not quote the Spanish Jesuit priest who said that the Calusa on Mound Key communed with Satan.

Below: on the museum grounds is a recreated metal 6 ft. tall statue of the Marco Cat; twelve times the size of the original wooden artifact.

I also have doubt over individual interpretation of many of the objects presented in the museum. There are several objects described as “war clubs.” That is their interpretation, not mine. Two of these clubs looks like a bow saw, not a club. How do they think the Muspa cut all that wood? Another of these so-called clubs is identical to one that shows up on the copper plate from the Lake Jackson mounds, and has been interpreted by some native people as staff made to look like a flower blossom used during Green Corn.

As for being war-like, I would ask who they were at war with, and why? This area of southwest Florida is among the most productive estuaries in the world. Food is so abundant that the people the Spanish met were the last remnant of the Mississippian mound builder culture; where other places the Mississippian society had existed collapsed due to exhausted natural resources. The environment was still sustaining a large population, and still does today despite our efforts to over fish, poison the water, and build over the mangroves. So there was no reason to attack the neighbors if they all had the same, productive resources that were available year round. Humans are aggressive animals and can get hostile, but I do not see a warfare motive here.

The notion of human sacrifice is not supported by any archaeological evidence, and I think this is totally ridiculous. This shows up in Spanish accounts, but nobody among them actually saw it happen. Yes, just about every tribe would execute captured enemies and prisoners. We just killed Osama, so it is no big deal. Maybe the Spanish had the Aztecs in mind from their recent conquests on the other side of the Gulf of Mexico. Spanish accounts driven by the quest for gold and converts to the church are very biased and unreliable, and sought to show that the native civilization was inferior to the Spanish Catholics, so it would justify domination or extermination.

Then we get to the most famous objects found from the Muspa people, the masks. Every southeastern tribe has or uses various masks. I have seen this, but do not feel this is an appropriate time or place to discuss them. Except to say that none of what I have learned or seen of their use agrees with the interpretation in the museum exhibit. They do not represent gods, former chiefs or shamans. They are not worshiped as a deity any more than Christians worship a priest's robes. The Spanish and Jesuits just did not understand what they were seeing.

Below: the landscaping on the museum grounds apparently has a beaver pond.

Hopefully over time the museum will improve these interpretations. Many factors need to be considered in understanding these people who cannot speak for themselves. Native people in this area still have stories and cultural understandings of the Calusa or Muspa. These people were well adapted to the environment they were in, and an understanding of the environment is essential to understand the people. Economic or trading routes should also be examined to see what made their society function. I hope the exhibits will take these into consideration and improve.
Current Location:
former Muspa territory
Current Mood:
accomplished accomplished
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