Finding Food in Early 'Florida'

Finding Food in Early 'Florida'

Mac Perry holding a shell tool above a dugout canoe.

ST. PETERSBURG- Dollar weed may invade the front lawn, but on the dinner plate? Dollar weed was one of some 600 plants early people in Florida ate. Horticulturist and author Mac Perry is finishing up his latest book Life and Lunch in a 9th Century Indian Village. 

 “It describes the life ways of the Manasota Indians who lived in our area between 500 B.C. and A.D. 900 with emphasis on the 600 food plants they gathered, prepared and ate,” Perry said. “Ninety percent of the foods we eat come from 20 species of plants. They ate 612. They ate a small amount of a large variety (of food) and we eat a large amount of a small variety (of food).”

Gathering food was labor intensive and sometimes lethal.

“Many of the plants were poisonous and they had to figure out the edible parts. They ate a little of everything until they found the part that was edible. Even if plants were poisonous they figured out ways to get rid of the poison—fermenting, triple boiling, drying, pounding and pulverizing. They did not give up very easily. They had to eat,” Perry said.

 For the last decade Perry had an up close look at how the Manasota lived in this area with an archeology dig in his front yard and neighborhood. “The site was once a 35-acre Indian village occupied at two different time periods, roughly A.D. 230-417 and again from A.D. 950-1210,” said Perry of his neighborhood by Tyrone Boulevard and Park Street.

 Archeologists studied how and when the Manasota lived in present day Pinellas County. They looked for fish bones, pottery pieces, shell tools, and stones for arrow points. Dr. Bob Austin led the study. Austin, a group of students, and members of the Central Gulf Coast Archeological Society came every Saturday for ten years. They studied several test pits in Parque Narvaez neighborhood.

 “Probably the most significant discovery was when the village was occupied. Through carbon dating they found people lived here back to A.D. 200. Originally they thought it was A.D. 800,” Perry said.

 The Manasota lived here year round. They were fishermen. The neighborhood is near present day Boca Ciega Bay.

 “They caught fish with nets. They matched the size of the holes in the nets with the size of the fish running by the season,” Perry said. “Fish hooks were made with briars glued with rabbit droppings and pine sap to bamboo slivers.”

 Once the Manasota caught or gathered their food, processing it could be complex as well. Perry described making the flour for a staple- “Coonti Cake.”

 “The root was scraped and peeled. They pounded, pulverized and boiled it into a soft mash. Then they fermented, drained and dried (the mash) to get flour,” Perry said.

 For more information on the archeology findings go to and click on the 2008 report. 

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