FOODS, FLORA AND FAUNA OF THE NATIVE AMERICANS OF CRYSTAL RIVER
MULLET AND OTHER FISHES
The main food source for the Crystal River people was fish and shellfish. Mullet (seen in this painting by Hermann Trappman) were plentiful in the river and inlets at the Gulf of Mexico. The Mullet may have been gutted and dried on racks or cooked as a stew in large clay pots. Other fish were part of the diet, and included; redfish, snook, mangrove snapper, and jacks. Larger saltwater species, like sharks, tarpon, rays, and grouper were also caught with spears and nets.
Shellfish were easily gathered, as both clams and oyster reefs are common along the Gulf Coast. Judging by the extensive shell mounds and middens that still remain, harvesting shellfish may have been one of the main occupations at Crystal River. Among the primary component species of Gulf Coast middens are Eastern Oysters, (Crassostrea virginica) occurring in coastal waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Take a walk near any Indian midden and you will notice oyster shells, thousands of them, proof that this mollusk was an important part of the Indian diet. Oyster beds would have covered the shores of Crystal River and they were easily harvested. Also readily available for them was the Marsh Clam (Polymesoda caroliniana). As shown by their abundance in Indian middens, the marsh clam was common in the mud flats of the Crystal River. Like Oysters, these shellfish are easily harvested and nutritious. Hard Clams served as a food source and currency for early Native Americans. These long-lived, dense-shelled bivalves live in sandy or muddy bottoms throughout Florida waters. Two species of hard clam are found in Florida: the northern quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria) and the southern quahog (Mercenaria campechiensis). Also harvested were Rangia, whelks and conches.
The most common land mammal hunted by the people of Crystal River was the white tail deer. They would have used a bow and arrow, or hurled darts with a throwing stick called an atlatl. Some hunters might disguise themselves by wearing a deerskin with the head still attached. All parts of the deer were useful to the tribe. Other mammals were hunted, such as; raccoon, squirrel, armadillo, rabbits, opossum, fox, and bobcat. Wading birds were caught with nets, and eggs were gathered during shorebird nesting season.
Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa), was also known as the Indian Fig, probably because the fruit looks like a fig and is edible. A scale pest found commonly on the prickly pear produces cochineal, a red dye. The uncultivated fruit produces a peach colored dye.
One of many types of oaks in this area, the southern live oak (Quercus virginiana) provides sweet tasting acorns. Collected when they ripened in fall, the Indians may have dried them in the sun and stored them. Raw acorns can be stored for months without spoiling. Acorns can be boiled, roasted or ground into a meal and used as flour. A Native American method for processing acorns involves placing the shelled nuts into a tightly woven basket, and allowing them to soak in a clean, flowing stream for a few days until no brown colored water is seen when checking their progress.
Muscadine Grapes (Vitis rotundifolia) were found in the nearby uplands inland from the river. This delicious southern grape, also known as Scuppernong, was taken back to Spain by the early explorers. Muscadines do not keep well after picking and would have been eaten when ripe in the summertime.
Indian Potato (Apios americana) was an important source of food to pre-European North Americans was the Indian Potato or American Groundnut. Both the tubers and fruit (a bean) are edible. The tubers can be eaten raw or cooked. When cooked, the taste is reminiscent of sweet potatoes. It is a vigorous vine that can wrap itself around shrubs, small trees, and larger vines. It also grows across low vegetation and open ground. The vines can grow from ten to twenty feet each season, dying back in the fall. The flowers are fairly good raw or cooked, and the seeds are edible. Hopniss tubers range from the size of a grape to the size of a grapefruit. Normally they are about one inch thick, one and a half inches long, and egg-shaped. The best tubers are medium-sized, young, very firm, and as smooth as you can find them. In a good patch, you can harvest half a bushel in a couple of hours. It is advisable to cook hopniss before consumption, since it contains trypsin inhibitors and this renders it more digestible.
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) was a common plant which had many uses for prehistoric peoples. It can be used as yellow dye, parts of it are edible and it is a popular ingredient of medicines and may have been used by the Indians for this purpose. Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) was as familiar to the Indians as it is to us today, the Black-eyed Susan is known to have medicinal properties. Beauty Berry (Callicarpa americana) could be used for skin (topical), urinary, edema and malaria. The bright purple berries were also widely used for body paints and dyes.
Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), a fiber from Indian hemp was very strong and used for many purposes, such as cordage (rope), baskets, clothing, and fishing nets. Also known as Dogbane, the plant yields a type of latex which was a possible source of rubber-like substance used in canoe tempering and other uses. Apocynum cannabinum was much employed by various Native American tribes who used it to treat a wide variety of complaints including rheumatism, coughs, pox, whooping cough, asthma, internal parasites, diarrhoea and also to increase milk flow in lactating mothers.