Who would have imagined a tiny cat could travel through time and over 1,000 miles to return to its birthplace on Marco Island in Southwest Florida?
That's the amazing story of the Key Marco Cat — a world famous enigmatic half cat/half human wooden carving created by the Calusa Indians or their ancient Muspa ancestors 500 to 1,500 years ago. The intriguing and remarkably well-preserved artifact has been described as one of the finest pieces of Pre-Columbian Native American art ever discovered in North America.
For the first time in more than 100 years, the wandering feline is reunited on Marco Island with other rare artifacts discovered there in 1896 during a Smithsonian sponsored archaeological expedition led by archaeologist and anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing.
This expedition produced some of the greatest discoveries in the history of North American archaeology. Because they were buried in an oxygen-free layer of muck, the rare wooden objects were astonishingly well preserved. Many began disintegrating upon exposure to the air. However, expedition artist Wells M. Sawyer recorded their original details and colors in field photographs and watercolors. Surviving artifacts and field recordings provide extraordinary insight into the lives of the Calusa Indians who dominated Florida's Southwest Coast and controlled South Florida by the time the Spanish arrived in the 16th Century.
On loan from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History and University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the artifacts can be viewed at the Marco Island Historical Museum in a dynamic exhibit now through April 3, 2021. In addition to the Key Marco Cat, the loaned artifacts include a ceremonial mask, alligator figurehead, painted human figure and sea turtle figurehead.
The artifacts are showcased in the Marco Island Historical Museum's award-winning permanent exhibit Paradise Found: 6,000 Years of People on Marco Island. The exhibit features an immersive life-size Calusa village, more than 300 Pre-Columbian Native American artifacts from Marco Island and surrounding areas, activity stations, animations, and original artwork depicting the 1896 archaeological dig and lives and ceremonies of the Calusa.
Since their discovery, the returning Key Marco artifacts have been preserved by the Smithsonian and University of Pennsylvania. Others are at the National Museum of the American Indian, Florida Museum of Natural History and British Museum.
"This exhibit is the culmination of a 25-year vision to bring these incredibly important artifacts back to Marco Island in order to educate and inspire people of all ages about the fascinating history of our region," says Marco Island Historical Society Curator of Collections Austin Bell. "It has taken years of planning and discussions with the lending institutions and the continuation of a public-private partnership that includes the Marco Island Historical Society, Collier County and the community."
Just six inches tall and carved from native hardwood, the Key Marco Cat has captured the public's imagination for over a century. "The Key Marco Cat from the Smithsonian collections is an extraordinary object that attests to the unique archaeological record of Key Marco and the people and cultures who lived there for millennia," notes Torben Rick, Chairman of the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. "Perishable artifacts, like the Key Marco Cat, are rare in the archaeological record. Its significance lies in the information it holds about the human past, cultural diversity, and the ways that these issues can inspire researchers and the public."
Meg Kassabaum, assistant curator for North America at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology states that the objects from the Penn Museum demonstrate the remarkable preservation of the organic materials from Key Marco. "Usually these materials do not preserve on ancient sites, so the Key Marco materials show us what we're missing from most other archaeological contexts," she states. "These particular artifacts are prime examples of the complex iconography used by pre-Columbian Floridians and probably had deep ritual significance to the people who created them. In particular, the paint that remains on the wooden objects serves as an important reminder of the level of detail and skill attained by pre-contact Native artists and gives just a hint of how beautiful these pieces would have been when they were made. The fact that they have survived so long is truly incredible and provides a nearly unique window into the past," she concludes.
The Marco Island Historical Museum is located at 180 S. Heathwood Drive, Marco Island, Florida. For information visit www.theMIHS.org.
The Key Marco Artifacts exhibit is a cooperative effort funded in part by Collier County Tourist Development Tax, www.paradisecoast.com.