The first inhabitants of St. Simons made this island their own some two thousand years before the time of Christ. No one knows what they first called themselves. Eventually they became known as the Timucuans - the name that has persisted to our own time. Part of the Mississippian culture that flourished over much of the Southeast, the eastern Timucuans ranged along the coastal plain of southeast Georgia and northern Florida. Their complex society was made up of seven distinct tribal groups that spoke at least five dialects.
St. Simons Island was the northern boundary of the tribal province known as Mocama - its name taken from that of the local dialect - that extended southward to the St. Johns River. The town of Guadalquini was located on the south end of the island at the site of the present day lighthouse, and the town's name also applied to the island itself. Just above Mocama was the territory of the Guales, occupying the coastal fringe between the Altamaha and Ogeechee Rivers. The Guales spoke quite a different language but were inextricably linked with their Timucuan neighbors and destined to share a common fate in the final drama that awaited them both.
These coastal Indians were a healthy and robust people. They were quite fond of adorning their bodies with strings of shell beads four to six fingers in breadth that were worn around the neck, arms, wrists, and under the knees and ankles. They painted their breasts, biceps and thighs with bright red body paint, soot and charcoal. Both men and women wore their hair long. They let both their fingernails and toenails grow, and the men would sharpen their fingernails on one side, an advantage in warfare. It was not uncommon for the Indians to engage in periodic warfare with their coastal neighbors as much for sport as for spoils, with violent ball games sometimes substituted for war. As for their clothing: deerskin breechclouts sufficed for the men in all but the coldest weather, moss skirts were preferred by the women.
The Indians' main source of food was the sea, which yielded sheepshead, sea catfish, drum, shellfish and the great Atlantic sturgeon. Their diet was supplemented by small game such as raccoons, opossum and the white-tailed deer. They also grew pumpkins, beans and corn, which they ground into meal, and gathered nuts, grapes and berries.
During spring and summer the Indians truly lived off the land. Modern camping gear would be living in luxury compared to the structures of the American Indians. Although crude compared to today's tents, the village was their community. The Indians gathered in villages and planted crops, hunted and fished until harvest. The villages included granaries, a large communal structure and family shelters made of saplings and boughs covered with palmetto fronds. The chief usually possessed a larger dwelling than his tribesmen. They used a wide range of bone tools; conch shells served as hoes and hammers. The Indians truly lived off the land. Modern camping gear would be living in luxury compared to the structures of the American Indians. Although crude compared to today's tents, the village was their community.
Corn was harvested in the fall and the surplus was stored in the large village granaries. Several times a year this food was redistributed in ritualized festivals; after the fall redistribution ceremony, the Indians dispersed into small groups abandoning the village pattern until the following spring. They ranged along the coast, from inland pine and river valley forest on the mainland to the high hammock forests, tidal flats, beach and dunes of the barrier islands. The group lodged in temporary shelters of large, oval-shaped pavilions, moving on when game and fish were no longer plentiful. When food was scarce, a hunter could hunt or fish in territory belonging to the village of his wife.
The Indians were governed by territorial and local chieftains known as "caciques" (Mocama) and "micos" (Guale) and by lesser-ranking functionaries within each of the coastal villages. They developed a matrilineal society, with hereditary power passed through the mother. The chiefs were required to marry a commoner, therefore a sister or nephew inherited the title. Governing power was based on the storage of corn - hence control of the food supply in lean times - cultivated by labor tribute from the subordinate villages. Along with their political power, the caciques and micos enjoyed the right to have more than one wife; monogamy seemed to be the norm for the rest of the population.
Unfortunately, little has been recorded of the Timucuan religion. As for the Guales, we are limited to a single account by a Dominican who recorded it third hand. Guale mythology seems to have embraced the origin and destiny of the soul, and the communal atonement of sin. Their major deities were Mateczunga, god of the north, and Quexuga, god of the south. The Guales believed that all souls originated in the north, lingered briefly on earth, then departed to the realm of Quexuga. The Spanish were fascinated by one particular ceremony with religious connotations: the drinking of the "black drink" brewed from the berries of the cassina tree. After drinking this potent beverage, "their bellies swelled and vomiting followed" cleansing the body of the participant.
Knowledge of the Timucuan and Guale way of life prior to European contact is limited by the paucity of the archeological record and the subjective observations of the early explorers and missionaries. From all indications, however, they were becoming more settled at the time of European contact. As to the direction that their cultural evolution may have led, we can only speculate. For with the arrival of European civilization, the Timucuan and Guale cultures were doomed to extinction.