Archaeologists still do not have a clear understanding of the town near Lake Okeechobee that is now called the Fort Center Mounds. Corn cultivation occurred there over 1500 years before it was common anywhere else, either in Florida or North America.
LAKE OKEECHOBEE, FL – (knotmove.com) – Archaeologist Robert Sears established is professional reputation in the late 1940s with the continuation of excavations at Kolomoki Mounds in deep, southwestern Georgia. Much of the last years of his exceptional archaeological career were spent at the Fort Center site near Lake Okeechobee, during the late 20th century. The location was named “Fort Center” by early Anglo-American settlers, because the eroded earthworks resembled 19th century fortifications. His interpretation of the artifacts and architectural evidence discovered were in such stark contrast to the prevailing orthodoxies of his profession, that many of his peers thought him to be a kook. For years, his reports were dismissed as being unreliable. However, in recent decades work by other archeologists have confirmed his interpretation and pushed back the occupation of Fort Center even further.
A Mexican Lowland variety of Indian corn was definitely cultivated at Fort Center as early as 850 BC. This tropical corn initially would not have grown well in more temperate climates. Apparently, the corn was grown in raised beds, created by digging drainage or irrigation ditches in geometric patterns. Evidence of corn processing includes metates (Mexican style grain grinding stones and lime kilns and an abundance of powdered lime. Hydrated lime is used in the processing of corn flour that will be used for tortillas and tamales. It was also used as the principal ingredient of white stucco, which was applied to buildings in the same manner as Maya structures.
The scale of corn cultivation at Fort Center grew far beyond the needs of the local community. It can be assumed that either corn kernels, corn flour, cooked corn products or corn beer was exported to other communities. There is little evidence of corn cultivation in other Lake Okeechobee communities until much later. Indian corn was not grown at a large scale in northern Florida until at least 900 AD.
By 450 BC the scale of the ditches, canals or moats being excavated by the people at Fort Center had become enormous. They averaged six feet in depth and twenty-eight feet wide. One circular ditch constructed during that time period was 1200 feet in diameter and enclosed 23 acres. Excavations that large far exceed the practical needs of agriculture or the assumed needs of ceremonial architecture. They didn’t “go anywhere” so they probably were not used for transportation purposes, but this is still possible. Another explanation is that the large circular ditches were fortifications that served a dual ceremonial purpose.
Mounds of varying shape and size are scattered about the Fort Center site. Some are definitely burial mounds. Others seemed to have been used as bases of buildings – either public or residential. Some mounds are surrounded by ditches or moats. Others are not.
Not your regular funeral home
One of the most unusual examples of Native American architecture ever created was a mortuary complex at Fort Center, constructed around 200 AD. A virtual reality computer image of the complex is shown above. The complex included a chevron-shaped earthen berm with rounded ends, a terrace for elite residences, a pond, a “sacred garden” for growing corn, a wooden platform for funerals, a conical mound veneered with shells imported from the coast, and a mortuary temple.
In the next part of this series, we will discuss what might have been the use of all that corn.