The trip from Fort Myers-Cape Coral to Pineland on Pine Island takes you down layer upon layer of bygones, through the historic Cracker shacks of Matlacha and along mango groves fecund with summer fruit.
At quiet, backroad Pineland, you hit prehistoric timeline bottom. Two thousand years ago, Calusa tribes settled here, building the waterfront town they called, odd as it may seem, Tampa. They dug a canal system that connected Pine Island Sound to Matlacha Pass; they fished, built midden mounds from their seafood diet discards, worshipped, and buried their dead for more than 1,500 years.
In the mid-1990s, Florida Museum of Natural History’s Randell Research Center purchased 60 of the archaeological site’s 200 acres to conduct research digs. Eventually it opened the site to the public. In recent years, the center has formalized the trails with boardwalks, shell and sand paving, and exquisite signage that brings alive the details of Calusa lifestyles that research has puzzled together.
Along the 0.7-mile Calusa Heritage Trail, artist’s conceptions envision the tribe’s social structure, daily life, and spirituality. They interpret points of interest along the way: the 30-foot-high Brown’s Mound visitors climb to reach “the top of the world,” with a scenic overlook; the Calusa Canals; and the Smith Mound, a newly purchased five-acre parcel where the Calusa entombed their departed.
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The National Register of Historic Places site’s pavilion holds a gift shop and an exhibit room of recreated artifacts such as ceremonial masks and the tools the Calusa fashioned from shells, bones, and vegetation. They help modern-day Floridians understand these spiritual people who inhabited much of Southwest Florida and believed that they had three souls. The soul in the eye’s pupil, they maintained, survived death, and so they regularly communed with the dead at the burial mound site.
Tip: During season, which runs about January through April, Captiva Cruises (239-472-5300, www.captivacruises.com) offers a tour package with lunch at nearby historic Tarpon Lodge.
▪ Calusa Heritage Trail: 13810 Waterfront Dr., Pineland; 239-283-2157; www.flmnh.ufl.edu/rrc/calusatrail.htm. Visitors can self-tour the trail from sunup to sundown for a donation of $7 for adults, $5 seniors, and $4 children. The pavilion is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. During peak season (January-April), docents offer guided two-hour tours at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.