(Partially from the Florida Department of State Division of Historical Resources)
The Florida coastline along the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico was very different 14,000 years ago. The first people to enter the Florida peninsula were not explorers, adventurers, or settlers, but nomads following the big game animals upon which their survival depended. The sea level was much lower than it is today. As a result, the Florida peninsula was more than twice as large as it is now. Mastodons, camels, mammoths, bison, and horses roamed vast grasslands in search of food and fresh water. Native Americans spread throughout the peninsula and into the Keys. Big game animals gradually became extinct, probably as a result of a wetter climate with forests replacing grasslands and over exploitation by human hunters. Modern researchers think this caused the diets of early Florida people to change to one consisting of small animals, plants, nuts, and shellfish.
These first Floridians settled in areas where a steady water supply, good stone resources for tool making, and firewood were available. Over the centuries, these native people developed complex cultures. During the period prior to contact with Europeans, native societies of the peninsula developed cultivated agriculture, traded with other groups in what is now the southeastern United States, and increased their social organization, reflected in large temple mounds and village complexes.
As food sources shifted populations increased and some groups moved inland to are as more suitable for growing corn, beans, squash, and other crops. Different styles of pottery decoration became unique to certain regions. Some groups began burying their dead along with elaborate pottery and other goods in earthen mounds. By A.D. 1000 the Mississippian culture, originating farther north and eventually including much of the Southeast, extended into Florida.
The Apalachee, the Timucua, the Tocobaga, and the Calusa ranked among the largest and most powerful chiefdoms encountered by European explorers of Florida’s peninsula. From initial European contact in the early 1500s, in less than 200 years these great native societies were virtually extinct, victims of disease, warfare, and slavery. The Florida landscape is rich with remains of their mounds, canals, plazas, villages, and other sites. Today the only evidence of these first Floridians is contained in those remaining archaeological sites that represent dozens of distinctive Indian cultures. These sites are often the only source of information on what Florida was like thousands of years ago and deserve stewardship and protection in the 21st century.
The archaeological record of Sarasota County spans some 14,000 years encompassing every stage of North American human occupation. Examples of Paleo period archaeological sites include Warm Mineral Springs and Little Salt Spring. At Historic Spanish Point, an Archaic period ring midden is preserved along with Manasota Culture shell middens and a burial mound. Throughout Sarasota County, shell middens, mounds constructed of daily refuse, can be found as evidence of hunting camps and village complexes.