From the  July
23, 2002  New York Times

 (right) Dr. Alison
Elgart-Berry digs at the site of a canal excavated by the Ortona.

Network of Waterways Traced to Ancient
Florida Culture


ORTONA, Fla. ˜ The casual
visitor to this small rural community about 15 miles west of Lake Okeechobee
might barely notice the broad indentations that run for seven miles from
a cluster of oak-shaded mounds through scrub pine and palmetto to the Caloosahatchee

    But to
archaeologists they are monuments to prodigious engineering skill and hard
work ˜ canals that enabled Indians to travel between
Lake Okeechobee and the Gulf of Mexico.

A.D. 250, Indians inhabiting this area began digging the canals by hand,
using wooden and shell tools to create waterways 20 feet wide and 3 to
4 feet deep, said Robert Carr, the Florida archaeologist who directs excavations
at the site.

goal was not to drain or irrigate land, Mr. Carr said, but to create a
waterway to bring dugout canoes to their village, a mile north of the Caloosahatchee.
The canals also allowed paddlers to bypass rapids roiling the river.

    The two-square-mile
village at the center of this watery network was a planner’s dream, with
sculptured earthworks (one of them resembling a crescent moon holding a
star) and mounds, ponds and geometric causeways. Eventually, the people,
known today as the Ortona, added a 450-foot-long pond, shaped like a ceremonial
baton and surrounded by a beach they made with white sand.

    “In adapting
to their wetland world, the people of South Florida achieved a level of
cultural sophistication and social organization much earlier than previously
believed,” said Mr. Carr, executive director of Archaeological and Historical
Conservancy in Davie, Fla.

    And the
dates place the Ortona people squarely within an American Indian tradition,
that of the Hopewell people, whose center was far to the north, in the
Ohio River Valley. Archaeologists have long theorized such a connection,
primarily because of the design of mounds and artifacts. But they lacked
hard evidence.

with these dates, Bob Carr has provided the smoking gun for placing peninsular
Florida within the Hopewell culture,” said Dr. James A. Brown, a professor
of anthropology at Northwestern University, who was not involved in Mr.
Carr’s excavations.

apparently occupied Ortona around 700 B.C. and lived there at least 1,500
years, Mr. Carr said. But the Ortona people’s
greatest cultural achievements occurred from A.D. 200 to 700,
dates from recent excavations indicate. Similar bursts of construction
appeared about the same time in other parts of South Florida. On one site,
at the mouth of the Miami River, Indians carved a circle 38 feet in diameter
into limestone, said Mr. Carr, co-discoverer of that site in 1998.

a population of 200 to 300, the Ortona village was a major center for the
exchange of goods and religious and cultural ideas from other parts of
the country, Mr. Carr said.

    In their
dugout canoes, traders plied the rivers flowing to and from Lake Okeechobee
like spokes on a wheel. They also paddled up and down the Gulf and Atlantic
Coasts of Florida, and even beyond.

have long reasoned that a major trade route ran from Lake Okeechobee down
the Caloosahatchee to the Gulf of Mexico and up the Gulf Coast to the Apalachicola
River in the Florida Panhandle. From there it followed the Chatahoochee
River north and ultimately crossed the Allegheny Mountains at Cumberland
Gap to reach the Ohio River Valley.

and shark teeth and skins, feathers from Everglades birds and shells were
carried north, Dr. Brown said; flint, copper, beads and possibly effigy
pipes moved south. And travelers carried a host of ideas about the cosmos,
marriage and burial rituals and shamanistic rites.

ideas and many of the goods were related to the Hopewell culture, which
originated in the Ohio Valley around 100 B.C. At its height, from A.D.
200 to 400, the Hopewell people built mounds, enclosures and causeways
in the Midwest and much of the Mississippi River Valley, and even more
extensive trade routes, Dr. Brown said.

But in a significant departure from the Hopewell tradition, Mr. Carr said,
the Ortona people and their neighbors in South Florida built mounds for
their homes, as well as for burials and ceremonies. “Placing structures
on mounds was a special South Florida adaptation to the wet environment,”
he added.

    The Indians
of South Florida traveled chiefly by dugout canoe, going deep into reaches
of the Everglades that many white settlers later considered impenetrable.
It is not surprising, then, Mr. Carr said, that the Ortona people built
canals to speed their travel. “The Ortona canals are the earliest we have
found devoted to transportation,” he said.

    The Ortona
canals formed a triangle, with the Caloosahatchee River as the base and
the village as the apex. A western canal ran about four miles; an eastern
canal, about three.

    Mr. Carr’s
team established the age of the canals with carbon 14 dating. The researchers
˜ Mr. Carr, Jorge Zamanillo of the Historical Museum of Southern Florida
and Jim Pepe of Janus Research ˜ published their report in the March issue
of Florida Anthropologist.

    The Ortona
canals appear to be part of a more extensive network of canals and dugout
canoe trails that crisscrossed the Everglades and ran along the coasts,
said Dr. Ryan J. Wheeler, senior archaeologist with Panamerican Consultants,
who has studied the waterways.

is known about the Ortona people, but Mr. Carr speculated that they might
have built some or all of the 20 other groups of mounds and circles around
Lake Okeechobee. He added that they were probably ancestors of the powerful
Calusa, who occupied southwest Florida and controlled tribes around Lake
Okeechobee, and the Mayami, who lived south of the big lake. Those tribes
flourished from around 1200 until Spanish settlement in the early 16th

    By the
time Spain ceded Florida to England in 1763, virtually all of Florida’s
indigenous people had vanished, victims of warfare and disease, particularly
smallpox. Their cultures and histories were lost with them. When American
surveyors discovered the Ortona earthworks in the early 19th century, they
thought they were Spanish fortifications, Mr. Carr said.

and Miccosukee Indians were driven into the Everglades region during the
Seminole Wars of the 19th century.

    The landscape
and earthworks of the earlier Floridians have changed drastically as well.
Hamilton Disston, a toolmaker from Philadelphia, destroyed the rapids of
the Caloosahatchee River in the early 1880’s, during the first concentrated
effort to drain the Everglades.

    A century
of drainage and development have further altered the environment and carved
up the Ortona earthworks. The vegetation-covered dry indentations that
were the canals, best seen now from the air, lie mostly on private land,
their preservation dependent on the owners.

    The Baton
Pond, built before 700, according to a recent, unpublished analysis, is
also mostly obscured, although the owners of the site are working with
Mr. Carr to preserve it.

of the 25 Ortona earthworks are protected in Ortona State Park, but others,
including a 60-foot causeway, are unprotected. Sand mining and development
have taken a toll on many, including a 20-foot-high burial mound ˜ the
highest point in Glades County. The burial mound was largely destroyed
by road building in the 1940’s and 50’s, Mr. Carr said.

the years countless Florida archaeological sites have suffered the same
fate, usually before anyone could investigate them, he added.

prehistoric settlement pattern across South Florida is still largely unknown,”
Mr. Carr said. “Lake Okeechobee was the hub, and it is one of the least
protected areas in the state. We have to help preserve what’s left, or
it will be gone in the next 20 years.”

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About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2022: I publish a weeklyish email newsletter called LANDLINE = https://jaybabcock.substack.com Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca., where I practiced with Buddhist teacher Ruth Denison and was involved in various pro-ecology and social justice activist activities.