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Published Sep. 2, 2005

Often, when alone on the water or exploring some back bayou, I find myself thinking of what it must have been like for the earliest residents in Florida.

What might have confronted those who traveled foot paths through the palmetto and canoed the rivers, creeks and coastal waters searching for food and shelter?

There is a place you can walk the same ancient paths.

The Crystal River Archaeological site is a pre-Columbian sacred ceremonial mound complex, an ancient gathering place for people of the estuaries. It is a quiet area where folks today go seeking a glimpse back through the windows of time.

Though macadam paths have replaced the natural lanes walked by the ancients, the feelings can be similar. You can imagine hearing drumbeats that date back thousands of years.

Evidence of life at the Crystal River site dates to 500 B.C. Since the times of the Paleoindians, nomadic individuals and groups of people hunted and gathered their existence along the coast.

These groups were made up of extended family members and clans. The clan organizations mostly were blood-related and led by their elders or the wisest, strongest members who could provide the leadership for life among the hammocks.

Like the visitors of today, those Paleoindians came here only part of the year, seeking food rather than sunshine.

Great climate changes were occurring. Populations of mastodons, mammoths and saber-toothed cats were dying out.

Early nomads of the Deptford culture, 500 B.C. to about 300 A.D., gathered food in small groups with specialized skills in aquatic resources. Maize or corn was not believed to have been part of the early cultures.

Much mystery surrounds the Crystal River site. Extensive archaeological research has not been performed. Still, one can imagine the everyday movements of its inhabitants from what has been found.

Temple mounds at either end of the site served as gathering places.

"The mounds were similar to our county seat," said Nick Robbins, who manages the site for the Florida Parks Service.

"Leaders of small nomadic groups gathered on these high places to practice religious ceremonies, trade, and other current issues of the times," he said.

Between the temple mounds is the plaza, where the common people gathered. Ringing the plaza are large burial mounds.

Robbins has been managing the site since 1993. His father directed it from 1967-76.

Americorp volunteers have been working on managing the site's resources, particularly thinning the woody vegetation from the plaza area.

In addition, some of the palmetto will be removed from portions of the burial ring.

If you have a question or comment, call Capt. Mike Scarantino, (352) 683-4868.