Sapelo Shell Rings (2170 BC)


Sapelo Shell Ring Complex1.Sapelo Shell Rings Rock Eagle2.Rock Eagle ancient stone wall atop Fort Mountain3.Fort Mountain Kolomoki Mounds4.Kolomoki Ocmulgee Mounds5.Ocmulgee Etowah Mounds6.Etowah
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The oldest Native American civilization in the state of Georgia can be found along the Atlantic coast on Sapelo Island. Known as the Sapelo Island Shell Ring Complex, this site consists of three doughnut-shaped Indian mounds built from successive layers of different types of shells including oysters, conch, clams, and mussels. The rings rise approximately 20 feet above the tidal marsh and the largest of the three has a diameter of 255 feet. The site has been radiocarbon dated at 2170 B.C. making it older than many of Egypt’s pyramids! (Similar sites have been discovered in Florida such as the Horr’s Island Mounds and Guana River Shell Rings which are even older as well as in South Carolina.)

This 3D animation shows the shell rings constructed all-at-once as intentional monuments.

There are two theories regarding the formation of the Sapelo Shell Rings.  One theory holds that they were built purposefully, in a short burst of building activity, as intentional monuments and ceremonial centers. The other theory holds that they were unintentional monuments built up over many years as NativeAmericans discarded their trash. This theory holds that the circular shape of the shell rings was the result of Native Americans living in circular villages and discarding their trash behind their homes which resulted in a circular trash ring that gradually built up over time. (A third hybrid possibility, gradual but intentional, will be discussed later wherein the residents purposefully discarded their trash behind their homes knowing that it would slowly accumulate into a protective, surrounding wall.)

“How the Timucua Hunted Alligators,” Jacques Le Moyne, 1565. Buy this artwork framed or as a poster.

The latest research seems to support the gradual accumulation theory.  The Sapelo Shell Rings are filled with not only various types of shells but also the bones of fish such as catfish and mullet, mammals such as deer and raccoon, and reptiles such as alligator. In other words, the shell rings are built from the refuse of daily living and preliminary research shows that this refuse accumulated over a long period of time as opposed to being deposited in a single building event as one would expect if the rings were intentional monuments.

This 3D animation shows how the village would have originally looked before the shell rings had completely formed.

Archaeologist Victor Thompson researched and excavated this site over several years. His research showed that one of the shell rings first began as several pits spaced equally apart filled with shell and other refuse. Over time these trash pits turned into shell heaps and later the areas between these shell heaps were also utilized for dumping shells and other refuse. Thus the circular form of the ring took shape as the residents, over a long period of time, continued dumping their refuse between and on top of the original shell heaps. This process resulted in a less than perfect circle and also gave the ring a decidedly “lumpy” appearance. If this had been built as an intentional monument one would expect the circle to be more symmetrical and the height to be more uniform but they’re not which is exactly what you would expect to see if the rings accumulated over a long period of time.

Party Time at Sapelo


“The Chief Receives His Bride” Jacques Le Moyne, 1565. Buy this artwork.

What does seem to be intentional is the central plaza within the shell rings.  Thus, even though the shell rings themselves may  be trash piles, their central plazas were indeed purposefully constructed as a location for ceremonies, feasts, dances, games and other activities of village life. In fact, Thompson noted that the interior of the shell ring was lower than the ground level outside the shell ring. He proposed this could have resulted from the villagers repeatedly cleaning the central plaza area by sweeping and dumping this refuse onto the shell ring. This would have added to the height of the ring while simultaneously lowering the ground level within the ring.

What’s For Dinner?

Timucua men cooking a variety of food items including fish, snakes, and alligator. (By Jacques Le Moyne, 1565)

By analyzing the bones and shells discarded in the shell ring, Thompson was able to discover not only what the people living at Sapelo ate but also when they ate it. The evidence showed that the villagers ate oysters primarily during the winter months. They ate clams throughout the year but more so in the warmer months. As to be expected, they also ate a lot of fish with two varieties of sea catfish being preferred based on the quantity of remains found. Fish in the drum family were the second most eaten fish including such varieties as  kingfish, silver perch, sea trout, Atlantic croaker and star drum. Interestingly, only one variety of freshwater fish was eaten: the sunfish. The remains of crabs, primarily blue crabs but also Florida stone crabs, were the second most abundant food source discovered in the shell trash heaps.

The Timucua dressed up as deer in order to get close to their prey. (By Jacques Le Moyne, 1565)

These villagers also ate white-tailed deer, opossum, raccoon, turkey, bottle-nosed dolphin, gray squirrel, Atlantic sea turtle and fresh water turtles, little green heron and domesticated dog. Minus the dolphins, dogs, turtles and herons much of the diet of these villagers 4,000 years ago is remarkably similar to those living in the area today. (Continues….)

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.

Big Mound Key & John Quiet Mounds (850 BC)

Big Mound Key- Ancient NativeAmerican civilization in Florida

The Big Mound Key site in southwest Florida’s Charlotte Harbor has a series of semicircular ridges reminiscent of the Poverty Point site in Louisiana.

Located on the Cape Haze peninsula within Charlotte Harbor in southwest Florida are two very similar mound sites: Big Mound Key and John Quiet Mounds. Approximately eighty miles due west of Lake Okeechobee, both sites are constructed from tons of seashells and feature several flat-topped mounds situated next to a series of semi-circular ridges. The layout of the ridges is very similar to the Poverty Point site in Louisiana. Poverty Point was the center of a vast trade network with trade contacts as far north as the Great Lakes, as far south as Florida and as far west as coastal east Texas.

Big Mound Key, the older of the two Cape Haze sites, was first inhabited beginning around 850 BC. The Poverty Point site in Louisiana dates from 1800 BC to 500 BC placing Big Mound Key towards the end of that site’s habitation period. About eighty miles east of Big Mound Key near Lake Okeechobee is Fort Center (next in our story) which was also first occupied around 850 BC and provides the earliest evidence for corn agriculture in the southeastern United States. It is likely that both settlements, Big Mound Key and Fort Center, had trade relationships with each other.

Big Mound Key- an ancient Native American civilization in Florida

Aerial view of Big Mound Key

Big Mound Key possibly started as a massive shell midden (or trash pile) built up over a long period of time by Indians discarding oyster shells and other shells from the food they ate. The site covers an area of approximately 37 acres. Later, several mounds were built within the midden that rise to over 18 feet tall. These mounds had steep sides and intentionally flattened tops so that a structure could be built on top. It is believed these structures would have been temples, administrative buildings or communal structures.

During a later period of the site’s habitation archaeologists have found evidence of shell tool manufacture at the site. Whelk shells were converted into both cutting tools and hammers. This required highly skilled craftsmen who selected the appropriate sized whelk shell and delicately cut holes in the proper locations for handle insertion. Evidence also shows that the diet of these craftsman was different than the surrounding local population suggesting they were of a higher status.

John Quiet Mound- An ancient NativeAmerican civilization in Florida

The John Quiet Mound site in southwest Florida’s Charlotte Harbor has a similar site plan as the Poverty Point site in Louisiana suggestive of a trade connection. (Image by I. Mac Perry from his book “Indian Mounds You Can Visit.” Click the image to purchase the book.)

The John Quiet Mounds are located across a small bay, Turtle Bay, east of Big Mound Key. The John Quiet mound complex consists of one large mound approximately nine feet tall with steep sides and a flattened top, 20 feet by 60 feet. Like Big Mound Key it also has a series of semicircular ridges below the mound near Turtle Bay. The one foot high ridges, five in all, are very reminiscent of those at the Poverty Point site in Louisiana. It is probable that structures were constructed atop these ridges. A hand-dug canal ran from the bay to the base of the large mound. Several other mounds with flattened tops exist throughout this site which were probably the locations of more structures.

It has been suggested that canals existed between the semi-circular ridges. This would allow the trading canoes to pull along side the ridges, load up with cargo, and then set off on their journey. If true, this would make John Quiet Mounds and Big Mound Key the Native American equivalents of Venice, Italy. The Venetians also built their mercantile city-state on islands in the coastal marshlands where they could set off on trading expeditions around the Mediterranean, their version of the Gulf of Mexico. As is often the case, people around the world separated by time and geography hit upon similar solutions to shared problems. Coincidentally, Hernando De Soto brought glass trade beads manufactured in Venice, Italy when he landed in Charlotte Harbor to begin his expedition to explore the southeast in 1539. The Venetians controlled the manufacture and distribution of these glass beads for over 600 years. Florida’s Indians themselves had a long history of manufacturing and trading shell beads and John Quiet Mounds and Big Mound Key were likely sources for such trade goods thus another similarity between these two unrelated maritime cultures.

The John Quiet Mounds site dates to approximately 200 AD which places it in the same period as the Ortona Mounds to its east. In fact, the Ortona Mounds feature a canal that connects it directly to Charlotte Harbor south of both Big Mound Key and John Quiet Mounds. Archaeologists now know that the people of Ortona had extensive trade networks along both coasts of Florida and extending up the Mississippi River as far north as Ohio. It is unlikely these trade networks developed overnight and were probably a continuation of those first established between Big Mound Key, John Quiet Mounds and Poverty Point.

Gulf Loop Current made trade between west Florida and Louisiana possible

The Gulf Loop Current goes through two cycles several times throughout the year. Step 1 of its cycle starts at the tip of the Yucatan peninsula and heads straight for south Florida giving mariners from the Yucatan a free ride. Step 2 of the cycle sees the current pushed far north, often times to the coastal waters of Louisiana thus giving the Tunica traders a free ride to their trading outposts in Charlotte Harbor, Florida.

What makes possible such long distance travel across the Gulf of Mexico is the Gulf Loop Current. This current loops up from the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico and can extend as far north as the coastal waters of Louisiana before looping back down the coast of Florida. Traders could ride the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico, catch a ride on the Gulf Loop Current and jump off at Charlotte Harbor in Florida. The return trip would most likely take a coastal route up the west coast of Florida and along the panhandle back to Louisiana. Coastal currents flowing northward would aid this journey.

It should also be noted that John Quiet Mounds and other sites on Cape Haze seem more influenced by the Weeden Island cultures further to the north than they are by Glades cultures just south of

them. It is possible that they are the southernmost participants of this advanced culture which exhibited a detailed knowledge of astronomy, an accurate twelve-month calendar, and constructed enormous earthen pyramids at sites such as Crystal River and Letchworth Mounds in Florida and Kolomoki Mounds in Georgia. A large ocean-going canoe was found at Weedon Island providing proof for such long distance trade.

The Poverty Point site in Louisiana features a unique site plan of parallel, semi-circular ridges which are also found at Big Mound Key & John Quiet Mounds in Florida. (Image courtesy of

Although it is possible that both Big Mound Key and John Quiet Mounds started off as trash middens, there are similar shell sites in the area that have proven to be more than simple trash piles. Some are entirely constructed from one type of shell, such as busycon, while others are constructed in purposeful layers with each layer representing a single shell type such as whelk or oyster. Could it be that these were “manufacturing” centers, so to speak, where the production of shell tools, jewelry, and ornaments as well as dried, salted or smoked seafood were prepared for trade? It should also be noted that archaeologists once thought the Poverty Point site was also constructed over a long period of time due to the size of the site but recent research shows, instead, that it was constructed over a matter of months in one large building episode. Thus Big Mound Key and John Quiet Mounds may also have been built rather quickly.

Archaeologists know that an extensive trade network existed across the eastern United States during the Poverty Point culture period. Archaeologists have found trade items at Louisiana’s Poverty Point that could only have come from south Florida and vice versa. The similarity in site design strongly suggests that Big Mound Key and John Quiet Mounds were likely trading outposts established by the people of Poverty Point. Not only is the site plan similar to Poverty Point but the natural environment is similar as well. Poverty Point sites were built near major rivers, junctions of lakes and rivers or in coastal marshes. Although archaeologists claim that the Poverty Point culture ended in 500 BC perhaps they simply moved to south Florida?

Possible linguistic evidence of this exists in the language spoken by the inhabitants of the area during historic times. The Calusa were in control of Charlotte Harbor and southwest Florida when the first Spaniards arrived and attempted to explore Florida. The Calusa built many sites similar to Big Mound Key and John

View larger map
Big Mound Key is west of John Quiet Mound in the above map. Zoom out to see a possible trade route between these two Florida sites and the Poverty Point site in Louisiana. View Big Mound Key & John Quiet Mounds in a larger map. (Please note, in order to protect these sites, the locations above are not precise and only meant to provide the general area in which they are located.)

Quiet Mounds throughout southwest Florida (including Mound Key later in our story.) They also were known for their extensive canal network. Recent analysis of words from their language suggests they spoke a dialect of Tunica. The Tunica are a tribe in Louisiana and quite possibly descendants of the people who built Poverty Point. They were great traders and during the historic period traded salt, their major export, as far west as New Mexico to the Mescalero Apache in exchange for horses. Thus it is likely the Calusa were descendants of a Poverty Point/Tunica outpost in Charlotte Harbor.

Not only do Big Mound Key and John Quiet Mounds fit the typical Poverty Point site locations (coastal marshes, riverways and river-lake junctions) but so do the next two sites in our story, Fort Center and Ortona Mounds, where even more evidence for long distance trade contacts is found but this time from Mexico.