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Crab Island Watersports sits on Okaloosa Island in between Fort Walton Beach and Destin, along the Gulf Coast of Florida’s Panhandle. Today this coast is made up of a cluster of bustling beach towns and vacation hot spots with plenty of fun and relaxing things to do (we recommend renting a pontoon boat and dipping your toes in the emerald-green waters!)

But did you know that the land of southwestern Florida has been inhabited by homo sapiens for thousands of years and holds many centuries of history? According to archaeologists, the Gulf Coast region would likely have been one of the few liveable areas of North America for humans during the Ice Age. Over the years, extinct animal fossils, artifacts, and ancient burial sites have been discovered in this region, suspected to be from around 12,000 years ago (the tail end of the Ice Age period).

There have been over a dozen different Native American tribes that have called Florida home and despite much of their history having been lost over the years, we are reminded of some of the original inhabitants of this land in many place names throughout the Sunshine State. ‘Okaloosa’ for example, originated from a Choctaw word meaning ‘black water’ and ‘Pensacola’, the Panhandle’s westernmost city, is the namesake of a Native American tribe from the area.

Today, we’ll dive into the history of northwest Florida and start to take a little closer look at some of the very first Native American cultures that called this land home.

The Woodland Period

The Woodland period is an archaeological term used to classify the pre-Columbian period of North American history from approximately 500 BC through 1000 AD. This period occurred after the Archaic hunter-gatherer period, and when the climate had become similar to the climate we know today. This time was defined by its economic, social and technological developments, such as population growth, plant domestication and cultivation, bow and arrow hunting, pottery making, and the construction of burial mounds. The Woodland period is often divided into three phases – Early Woodland, Middle Woodland and the Late Woodland period.

Early Woodland Period

Deptford Culture

In northwest Florida, the Early Woodland period has been defined by the Deptford Culture, and over 500 Deptford sites have been recorded. During this time, the Florida Panhandle was geographically very different from how we know it today. It’s believed that the sea level of northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast has risen two meters over the past 2000 years, which may be why there’s still much mystery surrounding the Deptford Culture and the Early Woodland period.

Deptford sites are divided into three types – shell middens (‘midden’ is a heap or dump), inland middens and burial mounds, with shell middens along the coast and estuaries being the most common. Far fewer burial mounds from this period have been found.

So what were these native Floridians eating back then? The archaeological research done at these sites indicate the Deptford people subsisted on estuarine finds like clams, oysters and fish; land animals like deer, small mammals and reptiles as well as nuts and acorns. It’s believed that the Deptford people migrated with the seasons, collecting shellfish on the coast in the winter months and then moving inland to hunt and collect nuts during the spring and summer. This is what’s been found at the archaeological sites, but there were likely other plant food sources eaten that have long degraded and so we don’t have the data for it.

The majority of man-made artifacts found from the Deptford period were different types of pottery. From impressions found on some of the clay pottery, we think that they were also crafting cords or baskets. There have been some tools made from shell or bone found, but not many, which leads archaeologists to believe the Deptford people made more use of perishable wooden tools.

Middle Woodland Period

Santa Rosa and Swift Creek

In northwest Florida, the Deptford Culture eventually evolved into two cultures which existed between 100 and 300 AD – the Santa Rosa and Swift Creek cultures. These cultures are characterized by more innovative pottery technology, more extensive mound burial and a ceremonial complex. The two are differentiated by their pottery styles, which appeared to be influenced by cultures to the north and west of Florida’s Gulf Coast, respectively.

As far as diet, the Santa Rosa and Swift Creek culture were eating similarly to the Deptford people, taking advantage of the estuarine shellfish and fish available, as well as deer, small mammals, birds, reptiles, nuts, and seeds. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many sites associated with the Santa Rosa and Swift Creek cultures and so knowledge of these cultures is limited.

Late Woodland Period

Weeden Island

The period between 300 and 1000 AD in northwestern Florida is defined by the Weeden Island cultures, which are more widely represented than other Woodland period cultures as there have been almost 1000 Weeden Island sites found. What made Weeden Island cultures different from the preceding cultures was their population growth, technological advancements and more complex socio-political structure. We have evidence of this more complex societal structure from their burial mounds, which contained large deposits of elaborate animal effigy pottery, and are believed to have been associated with a small group of elite members of society. Their pottery in general was more intricate and featured incisions, markings and decorative red paint. This was probably made possible by their more advanced tool-making, which included stone tools like scrapers, knives and hammerstones.

During the Weeden Island period people continued to hunt, fish and gather food just as the cultures before had. However it’s believed that, in contrast to the cultures before them who likely relocated depending on the season, the Weeden Island cultures became more settled and took advantage of the inland area, domesticating and cultivating native crops, such as sunflowers, gourds, corn and beans. As it goes, the Weeden Island cultures made way for the culture that followed, which has been labeled the Mississippian Culture and was the last major prehistoric cultural development in North America, before the arrival of the European colonizers.

Though life in northwestern Florida looks quite different today compared to a thousand years ago, how cool is it to know that for millennia humans have been living off the same fertile land, fishing and cultivating many of the same plants and animals that we consume there today? There’s plenty more history of the Emerald Coast of Florida documented in the following thousand years that has ultimately shaped northwest Florida into the beach towns and cities we know today, but we’ll save that for another day. Just remember the next time you vacation in Destin, Fort Walton Beach or another spot on Florida’s Emerald Coast, you are partaking in a long history of people who have used this same land and resources to survive, thrive, and advance society.

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