Horr’s Island Mounds (3000 BC)

This 3-D reconstruction shows how the Horr’s Island Mounds would have looked 4,000 years ago. Please help support this site by making a purchase in our store or by making a donation. All proceeds help fund future exhibits.

The Horr’s Island Mounds site located in southwest Florida near present-day Fort Myers represents the beginning of a new way of life for Florida’s Native Americans. Established between 3000 – 2800 B.C., not only is this one of the first permanent villages to be occupied year round but it also is the site of the oldest burial mound in the state of Florida (and perhaps North America).

Before this time period Florida’s Native Americans were living in semi-permanent villages on a seasonal basis. They were primarily hunter-gatherers who moved with the seasons and exploited the natural resources around each temporary village site. We also know from various sites around Florida such as the Windover Bog site that they already ritually buried their dead though not in mounds as at Horr’s Island but instead in ponds and bogs. From these burials we know they had a vast array of tools made from bone, stone and shell as well as a sophisticated array of woven fabrics and ropes.

From other burial sites during this time period we know that certain community members held special status based on the discovery of a ceremonial headdress consisting of two small decorated antlers worn in the hair of the deceased. We also know violence was not unknown to Florida’s Native Americans during the Archaic period as several burials had spear points lodged in their bones.

Thus the creation of a permanent village with a permanent location for burials within a mound seems a logical next step in development for Florida’s Native Americans. Horr’s Island would be the logical place for this new development due to its abundant marine and other natural resources. Thousands of tiny fish bones (including hardhead catfish, pinfish, threadfin herring) and shells of all kinds were unearthed and examined to determine what season they were collected. The seasonality of these bones and shells indicated that people lived on Horr’s Island year-round, gathering scallops in the summer, quahogs in the winter or spring, and catching catfish, pinfish and threadfin herring mainly in the fall. (A similar shell mound site on the Georgia coast known as the Sapelo Shell Ring Complex was inhabited around the same time as the Horr’s Island Mounds and would show a similar pattern of year-round habitation.)

Horr's Island Mounds diagram
Diagram of the Horr’s Island Mounds site from Precolumbian Architecture in Eastern North America

It appears that “bottom-dwelling estuarine fish such as catfish and sheepshead were commonly caught on lines. Smaller fish were apparently netted.”

As evidenced by the more than 600 postholes found during excavations, Horr’s Island residents lived in small circular houses. Not only did Horr’s Island Archaic people live year-round in one place but they built a shell and sand mound nearby. They built it in a well-defined cone shape rising 20 feet above the ground surface. Layers of sand were spread carefully over the shell from time to time. Some of the sand layers were pure white and others were colored by the addition of charcoal.

This points clearly to deliberate construction and to a ceremonial use. Mound A is believed to be a burial mound because of two human burials found within. This makes the mound the earliest burial mound known in the Eastern United States. Thus the Horr’s Island Mounds site has changed the way archaeologists view Florida’s Archaic period Native Americans. These people lived a settled life, caught fish and collected shell fish throughout the year. They buried their dead in mounds.

But this was just the beginning of Florida’s ancient architect’s accomplishments. From here on out their village sites would become more complex and their mounds more grandiose as each millenium passed such as at the next site in our story: Tomoka Mounds.


Tomoka Mounds (2510 BC)

 This 3-D reconstruction shows how the Tomoka Mounds would have looked 4,000 years ago. Please help support this site by making a purchase in our store or by making a donation. All proceeds help fund future exhibits.

The Tomoka Mounds near the current Ormand Beach area are also representative of Archaic pre-Columbian Native American cultures in Florida. The Tomoka Mounds date to 2500 BC which is somewhat later than the previously discussed site, Horr’s Island Mounds. Tomoka Mounds represent a fine example of the end of the Archaic ages Late period which came to a close at the same time (Waselkov & Braund).

This archaeological site is a large complex of burial mounds and shell middens that comprise one of the earliest Native American settlements on the Central East Coast of Florida. This mound construction dates back to the Mount Taylor period, around 5500 years ago. Among the more interesting things found at the site are artifacts imported from quite some distance, including a cache of six bannerstones made of materials that are native to north Georgia.

Such discoveries are enlightening because it indicates considerable trade or nomadic activity at such an early period in Native American history. Some conjecture still exists on whether the Tomoka Mounds are indicative of a nomadic or permanent settlement.

The actual construction method of the Tomoka Mounds consists of extensive use of sand-layering techniques in which nine separate layers of differently colored sand are laid over each other (Milanich). The exact purpose of this construction technique is undetermined but some researchers have conjectured it might relate to various ethnic or group associations within the community.

The remains of shells at the site have revolutionized thought about when the area was inhabited. These early dwellers came to Central Florida before the streams were receptive to oyster development.

The next sites in our story of Florida’s ancient Native American civilizations, the Guana River & Joseph Reed Shell Rings, are similar to the previous site of Horr’s Island Mounds. The one thing all these sites have in common is the use of shells as a building material which is why these cultures are often called the Shell Mound Builders.

Guana River & Joseph Reed Shell Rings (2050 BC)

The Guana River, Joseph Reed, and St. Augustine Shell Ring structures found in Florida represent the earliest part of the Woodland Period in pre-Columbian America. The Woodland Period extends from approximately 2000BC to 1000AD and these Shell Ring structures date from approximately 2050 BC (Florida). Shell Ring archeological structures are a unique indicator of pre- Columbian and pre-historic life and culture. Some research has revealed at the Guana, Joseph Reed, and St. Augustine Shell Rings that, in some instances, over 4,000 cubic meters of various types of shells were required to construct them (Milanich).

The Shell Rings themselves are not limited to the remains of shell fish and other crustaceans but also contain the bones of fish, such as Catfish, the bones of mammals such as raccoons and other subsistence prey. Therein is the debate regarding the character of the Guana, Joseph Reed, and St. Augustine Shell Rings; what exactly was the intent, if any, behind their construction? Recent archeological theory has posited that Shell Rings are nothing more than refuse piles that were more developed over time rather than intentionally constructed (Mainfort). As detritus was regularly discarded behind residential structures arranged in a circular fashion, the result was a massive build-up. (A similar scenario can be found at the Sapelo Shell Ring Complex on Sapeolo Island, Georgia.)

An older shell ring-like structure, the Horr’s Island Mounds, can be found on the west coast of Florida that dates to around 3000 BC. Florida’s Native Americans would continue building shell constructions on a monumental scale at the next two sites in our story: Big Mound Key & John Quiet Mounds.