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.


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.