Boynton Beach (USA): Indian Mounds Reveal 'Belle Glade Culture' History

Attiyya Anthony

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Tucked away in western Boynton Beach are the remnants of a relatively unknown prehistoric culture.

Just off US 441 and Boynton Beach Boulevard, in a spot guarded by cottonmouth snakes and alligators, are eight Native American mounds belonging to a group that became known as the Belle Glade culture.

The mounds have been largely untouched since the 1970s, but one Florida Atlantic University graduate student, Rebecca Stitt, went on a recent dig at the mound complex, where she found pottery and ceramics. Her research and items from a previous dig will be on display at the Historical Society of Palm Beach County until June 28.

Palm Beach County officials say that Stitt's research could help the county move forward with creating a park on the site.

"There are great things that can be learned about the people before us," Stitt said. "Florida's cultural history is virtually unknown; people don't take time to learn what people came before the Seminoles."

Members of the Belle Glade culture lived around Lake Okeechobee from Belle Glade to as far south as Boynton Beach, as far back as 2,000 years ago.

Because the tribe had no written language, archaeologists do not know what the tribe called themselves, so they are referred to as the Belle Glade culture — an advanced hunter-gatherer civilization characterized by their mound styles, engineering and pottery. They also have some of the largest earthwork systems in Palm Beach County.

The Boynton Beach Mound Complex is 40 acres of swampland with heaping Indian mounds, including burial mounds, ceremonial mounds and trash mounds.

In 1974, there was a privately funded excavation of the mounds led by the Palm Beach County Archaeological Society. The dig unlocked a few mysteries about the culture, but Stitt said there was more to be learned.

"Work needed to be done at the Boynton mounds because nothing has been done there for a while," she said. "I wanted to look at ceramics specifically, to see which ceramics came from which times."

In her research, Stitt explored a trash mound and was surprised at what she found, especially when it came to the clay pieces.

"The Belle Glade culture pottery is fired to a much higher temperature than other tribes," she said. "The idea is that the muck around the lake traps the heat and allows it to burn at a higher temperature."

It's just a hypothesis, though. Stitt said that more research is needed to find out how the culture managed to do this.

But pottery isn't the only marvel that intrigues archaeologists and historians about the Belle Glade culture.

Debi Murray of the Palm Beach Historical Society said that the culture learned to survive in a treacherous environment.

The Indians at the Boynton Beach mounds lived eight miles off of the coast in the swamp and sawgrass.

"They were an interior culture and had no direct contact with Europeans in the early years," Murray said. "They built mounds and huts above the sawgrass — they had a height advantage; they could see people coming from miles away."

Even though they were an isolated culture, European diseases from interactions with other Indians eventually killed them, experts say.

Historians also say that although the culture had no documented government, they had a large public-works system where members built canals so they could trade pottery, glass beads and food and beverage utensils with other tribes.

"It's nice for people to know that the land was inhabited before the Europeans," said Janet DeVries of the Boynton Beach Historical Society. "People say Florida doesn't have history, but there are very many layers to Florida's history."

That's why county officials say that in the future, the Boynton Beach Mound Complex could be a tourist destination.

Chris Davenport, Palm Beach County's historic preservation officer and archaeologist, said that when the county gets the money through state grants, private funding or federal money, the site will be turned into a park and trail so people can learn about who inhabited the land thousands of years before Ponce de Leon came in 1513.

"It's an asset," he said. "Probably one of the greatest untapped economic resources in Palm Beach County is prehistoric and historic tourism."