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A walk through history

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By Mark Scohier

Six thousand years ago, Native Americans living in Cedar Key began piling up shells to form manmade islands. 

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Today, many area residents live in homes built upon the efforts of those early inhabitants, though archaeologists believe there were actually more people living there 1,500 to 2,000 years ago than there are today. Way Key is a good example, having one of the largest mound complexes in Florida, according to archaeologists. Before modern development took hold, the island had three to five mounds, some being as high as 35 feet.

Shell Mound, another example, rises about 28 feet and encompasses about 5 acres. The mound was built over a 3,500 year period and is the shape of a crescent, a common form in the area that experts are still speculating on.

On Thursday, about a dozen people gathered at Shell Mound to hear Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge Ranger Pam Darty give a presentation on the site, which, according to Darty, is slated to soon be partially excavated by archaeolgists with the University of Florida hoping to uncover some of its mysteries.

'This mound was started in the Middle Archaic Period (5000 to 2000 B.C.)," Darty told the visitors, but, she added, nobody knows what tribe began the immense undertaking. None of them had a written history. "We don't know tribes until the Spanish came," she said.

Pulling a blowgun and a small spear from the back of her van, Darty gave a quick demonstration of how natives would have used the tools to hunt animals.

Life wasn't easy back then, she said. But food was readily available—evident from the mound itself, largely composed of clam shells.

A few minutes later, the group, led by Darty, took off down the shell speckled trail that winds through the mound. Tiny fiddler crabs dodged tennis shoes and the wheels of a baby stroller. The limbs of gnarly scrub oaks and cedar trees filtered the early morning sun, and Darty, holding the leaf a small shrub dotted with red berries, told about the wild coffee that the Spanish once sipped when they traveled through Cedar Key.

Moments later, the group headed off to a small bluff overlooking a marsh where Darty talked about the trade that natives depended so heavily upon. Native Americans in the area didn't have bowls that could be used for boiling, she said. Instead, they lined holes in the ground with animals skins and used hot soap stones, acquired from northern tribes, to heat the water from within.

She also said that much of the archaeological evidence in the area was plundered years ago.

"I hear people in Cedar Key have it all on their shelves," she said with a slight smile, pointing to a small island in the marsh she said is pockmarked with holes—the evidence of a looted history.

Cedar Key resident Jenny McCain, with baby in tow, said after the event she had a good time. She said she's lived in Cedar Key for years but has never made it out to the trail that snakes through the mound.

She said her favorite part was "learning how to cook food without a bowl" and learning a little more about the people who once inhabited the area.

And that's good news to Darty.

"That's what I live for: cultural interpretation. Whenever I get a chance to educate people, I just get a thrill."

Darty does tours of the mound several times a year and by request for groups. For more information, contact the LSNWR at 352-493-0238.