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Searching for the Fisher Kings

In the waters of southern Florida, the creative Calusa people forged a mighty empire

September/October 2021

Florida Mound KeyFlorida Key Marco CatIn 1895, Frank Hamilton Cushing, a pioneering anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution, turned his attention to an obscure area of swampland in southwestern Florida. He had been shown a collection of objects that had recently been found by workers extracting peat from a bog on Key Marco, on Florida’s Gulf Coast northwest of the Everglades. Cushing was one of the country’s preeminent scholars of Native American culture, yet the artifacts he saw perplexed him. The finely crafted relics, which he estimated to be quite old, were unlike anything he had seen before. Cushing decided to make the long, arduous trek to Key Marco, where he organized a team to further investigate the site.


Over the next two years, Cushing’s team retrieved thousands of objects that stunned the archaeological community. Preserved in the muddy, oxygen-free conditions of the bog were tools, weapons, ceramics, and household objects made from bone, shell, wood, and woven fibers. There were also painted ceremonial masks and carved animal heads. A six-inch wooden statuette of a feline, known as the Key Marco Cat, is considered by many to be one of the finest pieces of pre-Columbian Native American sculpture.


The people who crafted these objects were a mystery to Cushing and other scholars. Their material culture was seemingly older than and unrelated to that of Native groups living in Florida at the time, such as the Seminole or the Miccosukee. The men and women who had created and used these items had inhabited Florida’s shores long ago. They had, however, left behind evidence of their lives, especially of their mastery of their marine environment. Buried in the muck of Key Marco were fishing nets woven from palm fibers, hammers and other tools made from conch shells, and blades fashioned from shark teeth. Even the land on which they lived owed itself to the sea, as it was formed from heaps of oyster, clam, and conch shells.