There were just piles of shells from the oysters they ate and burial mounds where people were laid to rest after elaborate ceremonies.
Among those mounds, archaeologists have found scattered treasures: tiny cobs of corn, shell arrowheads and decorations, shards of pottery. They also discovered pieces of copper and rock that provide tantalizing clues that these people were hardly isolated along the salty southeastern edge of the continent.
For years, they've been known as the Timucua, lumped in with about 35 chiefdoms scattered across 19,000 square miles of what is now south Georgia and north Florida. Archaeologists, though, say those who lived along the coast -- from south of the St. Johns River up to St. Simons Island -- were a distinct group that should be known as the Mocama.
The word translates roughly to "of the sea," and it's an apt name for those whose lives were governed by their maritime environment.
No one knows how the American Indians referred to themselves. But Mocama was the dialect spoken by the Timucua, according to the Spanish who lived among them and who named the area the Mocama province. And a mission founded by the Spanish on southern Cumberland Island reflected that name: Mission San Pedro de Mocama.
"The Mocama were people of the water, be it the Intracoastal or the Atlantic," said Robert Thunen of the University of North Florida.
He and a UNF colleague, Keith Ashley, are among the archaeologists who have been working to learn more about the Mocama. They have evidence that the group was part of a vast trading network before the Europeans arrived and painstakingly have been piecing together what life was like just before first contact with Europeans.
Researchers in the past 25 years have taken giant leaps in their understanding of such Native Americans, said Jerald T. Milanich, a University of Florida scholar who has written numerous books on the subject.
He credits Mr. Thunen and Mr. Ashley with helping to figure out the comings-and-goings of American Indian groups -- in addition to their interaction with French and Spanish colonists, well before Jamestown or Plymouth.
Among the Timucua -- who were named for the language they spoke -- there were probably 11 dialects, Mr. Ashley said. Mocama speakers were congregated from the mouth of the St. Johns River and the nearby barrier islands.
The Mocama were at the center of a crucial part of early American history: Fort Caroline. It was there, in what's now Jacksonville, that the French got a toehold in the New World in 1564, living among -- and eventually annoying -- the native Mocama speakers. By 1565, that outpost was overrun by the Spanish, who based themselves in St. Augustine so they could run the French out.
UNF archaeologists and students have been conducting digs on land along the coastal estuaries where the Mocama lived. And on Black Hammock Island in the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, they are investigating what Mr. Ashley thinks was a Spanish mission.
From the site of the mission, he looked out at Big Talbot and Fort George islands and described how villages would have been scattered among them, reached by dugout canoes.
People had been living there for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. Mr. Ashley said pottery from the area has been dated to as far back as 2500 B.C.; it's the oldest pottery found in the United States, except perhaps for slightly older material from the Savannah River area.
Within the past 10 years, archaeologists have been able to figure out what kind of pottery was being made, in addition to where and when it was made. That tells them more about migration patterns before and after the Europeans arrived.
And it's clear, Mr. Ashley said, that about 1,000 years ago, the Mocama were connected to Cahokia, a large, sophisticated American Indian settlement near St. Louis and to a related culture around Macon.
"The common perception is that these guys are sequestered here in the salt marsh, that this is the only world they know," Mr. Ashley said. "But in all reality, they were involved in far-flung trade networks all over the Southeast."