The immensely rich archaeological heritage of South Florida is little known outside the southern tip of the Florida Peninsula. Perhaps least known are the large town sites east of Lake Okeechobee. Several have been studied by professional archaeologists and the large town sites are all now protected by some form of public ownership.
The 143 acre Big Mound City and 12 acre Big Gopher Archaeological Zones are located in central Palm Beach County, Florida.1 They are ten miles east of Canal Point, in the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area. Nearby Big Gopher is one of the best-preserved earthwork sites in the Lake Okeechobee Basin and consists of linear ridges, crescents, mounds, and middens.
Much of Palm Beach County was thinly occupied by the Jaega People, when the region was first visited by the Spanish in the late 1500s and early 1600s.2 In English, this ethnic name would be written Haega. They were linguistically related to the fierce Ais People living to the north.
The Jaega were hunters, fishermen and gatherers.3 They produced relatively little pottery and lived in simple huts, woven from saplings and palmetto leaves. They foraged for Live Oak acorns, coco plums, sea grapes, palm berries, edible roots, and possibly cultivated a small sweet pumpkin called the Calusa or Calabaza Squash. The Jaega drank a tea, brewed from the cassina plant (Yaupon holly) which contains about four times the caffeine of most coffee beans. This is a custom that they shared with many tribes in the Lower Southeast and with the Upper Amazon Basin.
Some contemporary archaeologists have credited the ancestors of the Jaega with building the earthworks near the Atlantic Coast of Palm Beach County. This may or may not be the case. The earthworks may have been built by a culturally more advanced people then later used as ceremonial sites by the Jaega.
Big Gopher Mound
Big Gopher Mounds is one of the best-preserved earthwork sites in the Lake Okeechobee Basin and consists of linear ridges, crescents, mounds, and middens.4 The mounds appear to have been the bases for large communal residential buildings. The architecture of the site is very similar to that of Big Mound City. This suggests that the same ethnic group built both sites.
There has been very little professional investigation of Big Gopher Mound. One small scale excavation was undertaken on the site in the 1990s. This investigation did not reveal much to further the understanding of these sites. The chronology of Big Gopher Mounds is currently unknown, but probably is contemporary with Big Mound City or preceded the other site.
Boynton Mound Complex
Boynton Mound Complex: in a cypress swamp bordering Arthur Marshall National Wildlife Refuge, thought originally to be on raised land where sandy flatlands met marshland; burial and sand mounds, midden, and earthworks.5 They were excavated in the 1970s and dated at the time to have been created as early as 750 AD. Some use or occupation of the site continued as late as 1763. However, archaeologist, Jim Wamke, radiocarbon dated some artifacts excavated from the lower occupation levels of the Boynton site and found that they were created somewhere around 600 BC. This date is a century earlier than Big Mound City.
The twelve mounds are spread over an area of approximately ten acres and range in size from a few yards circular to a mammoth rectangular one measuring 200 x 100 feet.6 The burial mound was coated in “white sugar sand,” which is not found in the region near the site. This means that large quantities of white sand were hauled by canoe from somewhere else along the Atlantic Coast.
There was once a large mound on the south side of the Boynton Inlet in Palm Beach County.7 Unfortunately, it was bulldozed to build a condominium complex before being studied by professional archaeologists.
Austin, Daniel W. (1997). “The Glades Indians and the Plants they Used. Ethnobotany of an Extinct Culture“. The Palmetto, 17(2):7 -11. (14 September 2002). ↩
“The Early History of the Corbett Wildlife Management Area.” Friends of the Corbett Wildlife Management Area web site. ↩