Braving swarming mosquitoes, daily downpours and repugnant swamps, anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing spent five months along the Southwest Florida shoreline in 1896 digging through coastal muck.All the while, as he and two men cut through mangroves and slogged through slime, Cushing documented his expedition in search of American Indian artifacts, stunned at his findings.
"I may be permitted to add that never in all my life, despite the sufferings this labor involved, was I so fascinated with or interested in anything so much " Cushing wrote.
In that largely untouched bog at present-day Marco Island, Cushing, a misunderstood and envied figure of the time, led one of America's great archaeological expeditions and unearthed remnants of this area's first people, the Calusa tribe.
If not for Cushing's foresight, little might be known about Southwest Florida's earliest inhabitants. Records kept by Spaniards offered some clues about the Calusa, a fierce and independent group, but Cushing's discovery of hundreds of Calusa artifacts — masks, wood carvings, pottery, woven nets and more — shed light on daily life, rituals and survival tactics.
"Cushing was an eccentric genius, a one-of-a-kind archaeologist that loved field work but also had a visionary imagination where he could look at the artifacts and almost become one with the prehistoric people," said Brent Weisman, a University of South Florida anthropology professor who co-edited Cushing's recently found manuscript.
"He was a very big-picture thinker."
The expedition to the Marco Island area came with a dose of serendipity. Born weighing a pound and a half and afflicted by health problems growing up, making him thin and frail, Cushing devoted himself to anthropology. Enthralled with Indian culture, he spent nearly five years living among New Mexico's Zuni tribe, an unprecedented approach to documenting Native Americans.
Cushing later found himself in Philadelphia at the same time a former British military officer passed through with artifacts he found in Southwest Florida. Recognizing the importance of the artifacts, Cushing commandeered a boat, the Silver Spray, and brought with him an artist, Wells Sawyer, and a conservator, Carl Bergmann, down the coast to an island known as Key Marco.
The trio, helped by a smattering of recently settled locals, found a unique preservation site of muck and peat.
"There are so few wet sites that we can actually glean info from to know more about the people that lived on this coast," said Phyllis Kolianos, a Cushing researcher and expert.
At Key Marco, Cushing employed revolutionary archeological tactics, carefully mapping and documenting the dig.
While some artifacts disintegrated within seconds of contact with air or sunlight, Cushing unearthed many still-iconic pieces. The famous Key Marco Cat, a 6-inch wooden cougar carving, is held at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., as are several Sawyer paintings of masks. To date, no Florida excavation has revealed a similar number of intricate carvings preserved so well.
Using the findings, Cushing then drew conclusions about Calusa life — their religious beliefs, means of survival, traditions and political structure. Nobody made such links at the time, and few would for decades to come.
"He wasn't an archaeologist that went in there after the artifacts," Kolianos said. "He was looking for how these people lived and more information about their whole living area."
The logic had its critics, who argued Cushing made unscientific leaps between artifact and history. But Cushing's conclusions have been proven right, said Randolph Widmer, a University of Houston associate professor who has written about Cushing.
"At that time, he was either considered a genius or there was incredible jealousy of him," Widmer said.
Four years after the excavation, Cushing died in 1900 from choking on a fish bone. A manuscript of his went unpublished, lost for nearly a century until Kolianos spotted it in 1999 at the Smithsonian's National Anthropological Archives.
While archaeologists have made several modern Marco Island excavations, including three involving Widmer in the 1990s, rampant development means Cushing's finds may never be matched.
"When I was down there last, they had built condos over almost every part of the site that was there," Kolianos said. "I honestly feel there is very little work that could be done."