Tracing Colonial Spanish Florida through Bioarchaeology.

Date01 September 2023

The state of Florida's Native Americans communities experienced a rich, if mostly-forgotten, pre-European history. Following the arrival of the Spanish in 1512, these communities were displaced, ravaged with sickness and infection, and either forced to assimilate or cast away entirely by the European aggressors. The remains they left behind can, however, be analyzed to uncover what exactly happened to them--enriching traditional historical records with lost information. In doing so, a greater picture of life in post-sixteenth century Florida can be imagined and a more thoughtful study can further be conducted concerning the results of the Spanish contact. Using skeletal remains and culturally significant artifacts including burial materials and religious tools, bioarchaeological methodology is useful in filling in the gaps of what exactly the past of the various tribes in Spanish Florida may have looked like both before and after contact with Europeans. The focus of this paper is to provide insight into the health and activities of Native Americans in the time period before, during, and after the Spanish invasion by putting it under the microscope that is biological anthropology.

The history of "La Florida" began when Juan Ponce de Leon sailed in search of the fabled fountain of youth. Initial contact was made in 1512 through 1513 and the land was claimed by the Spanish Monarch, King Ferdinand II. (1) Contact was briefly made with the indigenous people, whom the Spanish deemed to be unfriendly. (2) Finding no fountain of youth, De Leon and his crew travelled southward to the Central American islands. Spain sent more expeditions in 1516 and 1517, which were met with aggression and forced to retreat. (3)

In 1514, Ferdinand II dictated instructions to De Leon for the colonization of Florida, aiming to convert the native people to Catholicism and demanding they accept the Spanish colonists and live in peace with them. The Spanish were ordered to only be violent or enslave the locals if they resisted. (4) A first attempt at colonization was made in 1521, which was later found to have been unsuccessful, written about years later by Spanish historiographers. The native tribes refused to obey and hence war was waged, one (Spanish) source even describes them as a people "not accustomed to a peaceful existence." Both Spanish Christians and natives were killed, and Ponce de Leon escaped to nearby Cuba where he succumbed to his wounds. (5) Several big figures in Spanish exploration played roles in the attempted colonization of La Florida over the course of the next three centuries, including Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon, Panfilo de Narvaez, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, and Hernando de Soto, most of which were unsuccessful. (6) The first successful colony by the Spanish was settled in St. Augustine in 1565 by Pedro Menendez de Aviles, in close competition with the French who were settling to the north. (7)

In the nineteenth century, Florida became a large sanctuary territory for escaped slaves from the southern U.S., especially in the wake of the war of 1812. Black slaves would escape to join the Seminole tribes, made up of dozens of native groups including the Hitchiti, Coweta, Miccosukee, and dozens more. (8) The Seminole tribes were originally Creek natives who migrated from Georgia and Alabama in the eighteenth century. Florida tribes becoming collectively referred to as Seminoles, which had not been common vernacular until at least the 1770s. (9) Provinces were designated as restricted land where Seminole tribes were allowed to reside and were strictly maintained by the Spanish throughout the Georgia, Alabama, and Florida areas.

Along with the original Seminoles were numerous other groups who had been living in Florida for hundreds or even thousands of years. One of the most important of these groups were the Ais, located along the southeastern coast, outside of St. Augustine and the Florida Keys. Shortly after first contact with the Spanish, a war broke out with the Ais, continuing until 1570. Little is known about this tribe prior to European contact, but they were known to have killed shipwrecked sailors, as well as taken many in. They were a hunter-gatherer tribe whose diet was rich with seafood and local berries. (10)

Perhaps the oldest tribe, the Apalachees, have lived in Florida since at least A.D. 1000. (11) They were farmers who were well regarded as powerful in the area. Their civilization was comparatively advanced, with a rich culture characterized by strict gender roles associated with hunter-gatherer dichotomy, religion and competitive leisurely activities, and it is estimated their population consisted of at least 50,000 to 60,000 members across multiple villages. (12) Localized to the northwest of Florida, they also commonly built large ceremonial mounds, believed to have been an indicator of social strata where the largest complex would have belonged to the chief. They cultivated local vegetables like beans and squash.

Close by to the Ais lived the Timucua people spread as far as the southeast of Georgia to St. Augustine. Organized as chiefdoms, they fished, hunted, and cultivated farmland as well as created many cultural artifacts and tools such as pottery and arrowheads. (13) The amount of surviving evidence among Taino tribes varies significantly, but based on linguistic deduction, they originated from the Caribbean and spoke a form of creole derived from an Amazonian language group. (14) Agricultural practice featured crop rotation and a mature economy between the Timucua and Apalachee. Hernando de Soto's expedition relied heavily on the appropriation of the local crops found in north Florida.

The historically colonial regions of Florida hold some of the richest heritage in the nation. The land previously home to just the paleo-Indian tribes...

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