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Anthropologists and archaeologists are finally taking note of and publicizing what early two-leggeds ate on an everyday basis. The old elementary school image of a large group of hunters surrounding and killing a woolly mammoth for food is now seen as an occasional, and lucky occurrence. Keeping elders and children fed day after day was done by the gatherers — were they all women? — who dug tubers and roots, picked berries, snared small mammals, netted birds, and carried back shellfish, to feed their clan.
It’s all part of the vast food heritage saga, as are the 1,000 year-old shell mounds of Florida, once abundant, now existing in just a few, well-protected locations.
The PInellas Point Temple Mound in what is today St. Petersburg was created from the shells of the mollusks that were the native American settlers primary food source. The mound was built using the discarded shells as a base, with builders constructing a type of temple that was placed on top.
It was on this spot that in 1528, Juan Ortiz, a captured Spaniard, was said to have been nearly “barbequed” to death by a local chief as revenge for the nasty treatment of his people by the Spanish explorer Panfilio Narvaez a year earlier.
Ortiz was supposedly rescued from the “barbacoa,” a rack used for smoking and drying meat, - yes, the origin of the bar-b-que - by the chief’s daughter, Princess Hirrihigua, who later helped him escape. Ten years later, Ortiz worked as a translator for the Hernan De Soto expedition. His near escape from grilling was included in various reports that eventually made their way to England.
Some believe the fabled Captain John Smith was inspired by this tale to fabricate the story of his own “rescue” 80 years later by another Indian princess, Pocahontas.
The Tampa Bay area has over a thousand anthropological sites, but this is one of the best preserved. The mound sits in a residential neighborhood. Visitors can now easily get to the top via a wooden boardwalk and stairs, added through the preservation efforts of people in the area. Signs along the way explain the site’s history and natural features.
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Visit The Food Museum for more food heritage and history.