The Ancient History of Sarasota County
Sarasota County is home to many sites with serious archeological significance
Sarasota County is home to many sites with serious archeological significance
People have been coming to Florida for a long time. And we’re not just talking about all the tourists who have been traveling to the Sunshine State since the early 20th century, or even the Spanish who first came to Florida in the 1500s.
Think much longer than that. Here in Sarasota County, there’s evidence of people living and traveling among our shores as far back as 12,000 years ago. “We’ve got an amazing continuum of human occupation in one area,” says John McCarthy, vice president of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens’ Historic Spanish Point campus. “That’s not the case in most places in Florida or the United States.”
Here in Sarasota County, there’s evidence of people living and traveling among our shores as far back as 12,000 years ago.
While much of the area’s ancient history remains hidden from view, there are ways that visitors to the area can learn more about the many people who came before them. Time travel along with us to some of the county’s notable ancient sites.
The second-oldest dated artifact ever found in the southeast United States – a sharpened wooden stake some 12,000 years old – was uncovered at Little Salt Spring in North Port. In fact, that site contains some of the oldest cultural remains in the United States.
Found within a parcel of land owned by the University of Miami, the 260-foot-wide by 250-foot-deep sinkhole once attracted extinct animals like giant tortoises and ground sloths along with the people who hunted them. The site isn’t open to the public, but it’s significant for the range of archeological remains, including wood, textile fragments and hair, found there that date back to the Late Paleoindian and Early Archaic stages of Florida’s history.
“We have two of the most important ancient sites of North America in Sarasota County. That's something most people don't realize”
—Uzi Baram, professor of anthropology and heritage studies at New College of Florida
Warm Mineral Springs Park, another North Port site with archeological significance, is open to the public. But it predominantly attracts folks interested in taking a dip in the only natural warm spring in Florida, which has a consistent year-round average temperature of 85 degrees and is thought to have one of the highest mineral contents of any natural spring in the United States.
However, beneath the surface sits another of the most important underwater archeological sites in America. Remains have been found at the site dating back more than 10,000 years. Those finds include the remains of a prehistoric hunter and seven other humans and evidence of creatures like saber tooth tigers, giant sloths, tortoises and even camels.
“We have two of the most important ancient sites of North America in Sarasota County,” says Uzi Baram, a professor of anthropology and heritage studies at New College of Florida in Sarasota. “That’s something most people don’t realize.”
Middens, Mounds and Burial Sites
A must-visit spot for travelers interested in learning more about Sarasota County’s early history is Selby Gardens’ Historic Spanish Point campus in Osprey. Evidence of human inhabitation dating back at least 5,000 years has been found there, and its Hill Cottage Midden may be one of the oldest and largest ceremonial shell ring middens in the southeastern United States.
The 30-acre Historic Spanish Point site is one of the largest intact actively preserved archaeological sites of the ancient period on the gulf coast of Florida. Its “A Window to the Past” exhibit offers a true inside look at some of that history, actually taking visitors into a shell mound dating back 2,000 years. The unique archeological display helps give us modern folks an idea of how ancient people lived, worked and ate at Historic Spanish Point.
“This architecture was being done here at the same time they were building the pyramids in Egypt."
—John McCarthy, vice president of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens’ Historic Spanish Point campus
McCarthy says shell mounds or middens are often thought of as just ancient trash piles. But the ones at Selby Gardens’ Historic Spanish Point campus were more than that, serving as ceremonial sites and even as an attempt to build a causeway out to nearby barrier island Casey Key.
“It was deliberate construction,” he says. “And this architecture was being done here at the same time they were building the pyramids in Egypt. People don’t realize the archaic shell ring here at Historic Spanish Point is as old as the pyramids in Egypt. People think there’s not a lot of history in Florida, yet there’s a tremendous amount of history in Florida if we consider the entire spectrum of that history.”
From January through May 2021, the Historic Spanish Point campus will be offering monthly on-site archeology programs to help visitors learn more about the site’s ancient past. Visitors can hear about recent excavations at the property and even see some of the artifacts that were uncovered. The program will be offered from 10:30 a.m. to noon on January 13, February 17, March 17, April 7 and May 12 and is included in the admission fee.
Another significant local site from this same general time period is the Manasota Key Offshore Archeological Site. Discovered by chance by an amateur diver, the Native American burial site is some 7,000 years old. It’s located in the Gulf of Mexico in the Englewood area and can’t be accessed by the public, but it’s another important piece in the county’s long history.
“These ancient people buried their dead in a peat bog that’s now under the Gulf of Mexico,” says Baram. “And the cemetery’s preserved perfectly underwater.”
Parks with Past Lives
The 60-acre Phillippi Estate Park in Sarasota is an appealing spot for a picnic or stroll along the shores of Phillippi Creek, and its early 20th-century, Italian Renaissance–style mansion is a popular wedding spot. But the site also factors into Sarasota County’s ancient past.
Excavations at the park have uncovered pieces of pottery, shell tools and other artifacts from 2,500 to 1,300 years ago, along with flakes from stone or shell tools from 4,000 to 7,000 years ago. Informative signage installed along the park’s nature trail offers details about the peoples who lived and fished along the creek thousands of years ago.
Excavations at the park have uncovered pieces of pottery, shell tools and other artifacts from 2,500 to 1,300 years ago, along with flakes from stone or shell tools from 4,000 to 7,000 years ago.
Located along Lemon Bay in Englewood, Indian Mound Park gets its name from the shell midden at the site dating from 1,000 B.C. to 1,350 A.D. Visitors can walk a rustic trail that winds through the trees now covering the midden where ancient peoples deposited their trash.
“All of these sites give us a sense of the long history of people adapting to this coastline,” he says. “It shows that people have been successful and lived rich lives before us. We have a responsibility to the indigenous heritage that’s beneath our feet, and our lives are enriched by knowing that history and passing it down to the next generations.”
Explore Even Further
If your interest in the distant past has been piqued, you can head to the Bishop Museum of Science and Nature in nearby Bradenton to learn more about the region’s ancient history. The museum features exhibits and artifacts focusing on Florida’s earliest animal inhabitants and the region’s Paleoindian, Archaic and pre-contact cultures.
The Venice Museum & Archives has a permanent exhibit about fossils found in the area. There are more than 365 fossils on view, including specimens from mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, camels, bison and sharks.
Speaking of sharks, Venice is known as the shark tooth capital of the world because of all the fossilized shark teeth that wash up on its beaches. These actually date from millions of years ago, so they’re from an even much more ancient time period than the ones discussed here. But hunting for these fossilized finds is a way that visitors can take a little piece of the past back home with them.