If you have recently jogged in Philippe Park, taken an easy bike ride, or hiked up the mound, you may have noticed USF Professor of Anthropology Dr. Tom Pluckhahn and his team of student archaeologists surveying, digging and sifting through sandy dirt nearby for evidence of the Tocobaga culture that once inhabited this land.
The word Tocobaga is familiar throughout the Tampa Bay area—from kayak tours and a disc golf course, to Cigar City’s red ale. But how many of us appreciate the history behind the name? Tocobaga was a civilization that thrived along Tampa Bay about 500 years ago. Their villages were likely scattered throughout the area, but believed to be headquartered near the mound they built in what is now Philippe Park.
When visiting the area today, it may be difficult to imagine that area was once home to a thriving civilization. Much of what is known about the Tocobaga derives from journals of Spanish missionaries and explorers who arrived in the area in the 16th century. Their short reports provide a tantalizing but severely incomplete account of what was clearly once a prosperous and intricate culture.
Over the past century, there have been several excavations of the site. Archaeologists with the Smithsonian Institution completely excavated a burial mound in the 1920s but their report of the work is only a few pages long. In the 1940s, archaeologists with the State of Florida completed small excavations in the “temple” mound and village. Despite these efforts, there is still a lot that is not known about the Tocobaga culture.
Today, the park we love for its native flora and fauna, for the beautiful Tampa Bay, and for the shaded picnic spots, offers no visual evidence of those who were here centuries ago. Except, of course, for the mound, where a powerful chief’s home once stood.
Dr. Pluckhahn hopes to discover more.