As the forty-third anniversary of the first Earth Day approaches, I’ve been thinking about endangered species – those species on the brink of becoming extinct. Extinct. Such a final word we apply to the animal kingdom.
But did you know there’s a group of humans who lived in north Florida who became extinct in a mere 200 years? It’s true. The disappearance of an entire nation of people could be a story from the pages of a science fiction book. However, in the case of the Timucua, the story leaps from the pages of history.
When the Spanish landed near St. Augustine, Florida, in the sixteenth century, the Tumucua occupied several hundred villages in one-third of Florida. Most historians agree they lived from St. Augustine to west of Tallahassee, and south to Tampa Bay. Much of what we do know about this group of Native Americans comes from Fr. Francisco Pareja, a Franciscan priest who served at a mission north of Jacksonville. Some estimates put the Timucua population at 100,000 in 1500 A.D., according to Florida’s First People by Robin Brown.
However, by “1800 A.D. all aboriginal Floridians were gone,” Brown states.
The artist, Jacques Le Moyne, left behind his renderings of the physical description of the Timucua, which actually consisted of many different factions, according to Lars Anderson’s book, Paynes Prairie. However, from the paintings and drawings and written descriptions a common picture emerges of a people who no longer exist.
Accounts show the Timucua to be tall and sturdy. The women wore their hair straight, but the men drew their hair up into knots on the top of the head. Anderson writes, “This was considered not only attractive but also a handy place for the warriors to stick their arrows for quick access during battle.”
A striking feature of the Timucua comes from the scratches or tattoos etched over the entire body of the male. Le Moyne’s paintings depicted a male warrior’s body covered with pricks in the skin made with a sharp point.
Despite their ability to withstand such a tortuous practice as poking holes in the body, the Timucua could not withstand the onslaught of the European invasion and the disease it brought.
Within 200 years of the Spanish explorations into northeast Florida, the last vestige of the Timucua strain had vanished. Some folks suspect the few remaining by 1763, the year the Spanish turned over Florida to the English, fled the state for Cuba.
Thanks to the writings and artistic renderings, the history books can recount the lives of the original Floridians whose name most likely meant “enemy.” When the Spanish asked about this tribe of tattooed natives, another group of Native Americans used the word Timucua, which may have meant “enemy” to describe the large group of people who spoke the same language but had separate tribes. The Potano and Utina tribes of Timucua were the most prominent ones.
Excavations by archaeologist Brent Weisman in 1989, showed remains of the mission, San Martin de Timucua near the settlement of Aguacaleyquen located near the banks of Mission Springs on the Ichetucknee River in 1608. Historians believe the Timucuans living near there helped build the mission at the spring.
To the Spanish, they may have represented the enemy, but to the Catholic priests who arrived to set up missions, evidence points to a more friendly relationship, which has left at least some form of a legacy of those who live here now.
I’ve always been intrigued to think a whole body of people could simply disappear. In the novel I’m currently writing, I’m dabbling with the possibility they didn’t disappear, but went underground in the Everglades, watching and waiting for the right moment to emerge. Here’s an excerpt from the first draft of Safe Harbors when one of the main characters discovers a familiar tattoo on two teenagers she meets on the beach when she comes to inspect a dead sea turtle (yes, I’m writing about sea turtles again – and panthers, alligators, and pythons – oh my!).
“Barbara, this is Sam McDonald and his sister Lori,” Jack said. “Their stepfather is Eric Dimsdale, another county commissioner.”
“Nice to meet you,” Barbara said as she shook both of their hands. “Daniel spoke of your stepfather several times.”
Barbara walked closer to the nest to inspect its size. She glanced back at the three young people now sitting on a blanket nearby. Sam turned toward her with his swimming trunks hiked up high on his thighs. She noticed the tattoo immediately. Her eyes drifted to Lori who sat facing the ocean, her bare back to Barbara exposing a similar tattoo.
“Are your tattoos identical?” Barbara asked.
“Lori’s has a female protector over the heart. That’s the only difference,” Sam said.
“Our mom has one identical to mine,” Lori said. “She said it was a tradition in her family.”
“What about your father? Does he have one?” Barbara asked.
“He died when we were young,” Sam said. “We don’t remember him.”
Barbara asked no more questions, but as the rest continued talking about protecting the sea turtle nest, Barbara wondered how old Mike’s lost children might be.
Mangrove Mike did not speak of years and dates. He was the age of the seasons that ruled the moments of his life.
He often said life had no beginning; life had no end. It only existed now.
“I’d like to meet your mother,” Barbara said to the tattooed siblings.