Scientists believe some skeletal remains belong to Native Americans inhabiting the area about 7,000 years ago. Based on these remains, it is believed the Indians ate mainly coarse vegetation and grains and therefore were migratory in nature. Although migratory, the discovery of many bones in single locations indicate to a more permanent presence in the area, or at least a significance of the Cape area to these people. There are modern clues about the native American inhabitants of the area. Much more is known about the Native Americans who populated the Cape Canaveral area in colonial times. Archaeological discoveries in recent years have indicated that a wide range of Native American groups left their marks in the area. Cultures are known to have varied, with some being hunters, fishermen, migratory crop gatherers and agriculturists. Some used bones for tools and jewelry and animal skins for clothing.
Clues about these people are found through the excavation of "middens", also called "Indian mounds". There are hundreds of middens are located on Cape Canaveral and the surrounding areas. Although middens on the Cape are currently protected, a large number were destroyed when full-scale construction of missile range facilities was begun. Each midden is typically several feet thick and contains the remains of coquina, whelk and clam shells. In addition, many middens have been found to contain artifacts. Many of these historical treasures literally went home with the original Cape construction workers. Some of the material has been well preserved for study and display. See Museums below. Florida State law now forbids disturbing these mounds until evaluated by archaeologists.
There were two native American groups who co-populated the Cape Canaveral Region. These were that two main groups of Native Americans These were the Ais and Timucuans, both of whom frequented the Cape Canaveral area due its local abundance of seafood and edible vegetation. They populated the Cape Canaveral area leading up to colonial times.
The Ais are believed to have populated the coastal area along the Indian River, originally called "Rio de Ais" (River of the Ais) from the Cape Canaveral area south to the St. Lucie River and extending perhaps as many as 30 miles inland. The Timucuans are believed to have populated a large area extending from Cape Canaveral north to Georgia. The Ais were fiercely warlike and non-agricultural, and survived chiefly on seafood and indigenous vegetation. They were known to be cannibals, and were greatly feared by other Native American tribes and European explorers. The Ais hated the Spanish, and were the chief reason the Cape Canaveral area was not colonized by Spanish settlers. A large number of Spanish shipwrecks were plundered by the Ais, who very rarely took prisoners. In time, the Ais added the Spanish knife and hatchet to their arsenal of primitive bow and arrow. They also salvaged tons of Spanish silver and gold, which is periodically discovered hidden in middens. The Timucuans were docile in comparison to the Ais, although they also are known to have been cannibals. Still, the Timucuans were primarily hunters and fishermen, and also raised crops. Their agricultural activities often resulted in a surplus, which was stored in granaries.
Neither the Timucuans nor the Ais initially welcomed European explorers with open arms. They had good reason to fear the Spanish in particular. When Spanish forces were strong enough to subdue the Native Americans, many were forced to perform slave labor. This typically involved forced diving and labor at the site of Spanish shipwreck salvage sites. By the time the Cape Canaveral area was colonized, neither the Ais nor Timucuan tribes survived. It is not known whether they were the victims of European-introduced diseases or inter-tribal warfare. Both were common in colonial times. The Ais and Timucuan tribes should not be confused with the Seminoles, who did not migrate into Florida until the 1700's. Seminoles were not common in the area around Cape Canaveral, but are known to have traded with American settlers in the Merritt Island area as late as the 1860's.
Although maps containing the rough geographic boundaries of Cape Canaveral, albeit without a name, are dated as early as 1502, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon has been credited with first exploring the region in 1513. His second landing in Florida was just south of Cape Canaveral, probably near the present day town of Melbourne Beach. Ponce de Leon was forced to retreat hastily from the area after being attacked by fierce inhabitants, probably the Ais. He did, however, have time to secure water and food, if no information on the famed "Fountain of Youth" treasure being sought. Unfortunately, the exact circumstances surrounding the naming of Cape Canaveral remain a mystery, although the oldest known map containing the name Cape Canaveral was made in 1564, well after the initial landing by Ponce de Leon. It is known, however, that the name Cape Canaveral is of Spanish origin.
Some of the oldest surviving Spanish maps of Cape Canaveral refer to the area as the "Cape of Currents", because sailors wanted to avoid this coastline due to dangerous waters and a better than average chance for shipwreck. This name was ultimately abandoned in favor of "Cape Canaveral", a name which has long endured. The name "Cape Canaveral" is made up of two fairly simple Spanish words. The name "Cape" was simply the designation for a point of land jutting out into the sea. "Canaveral", literally translated "canebrake", might have had a number of different meanings depending upon who actually selected the name. The Smithsonian Institution included an account of the naming of Cape Canaveral in their 1992 traveling exhibition celebrating the 500th anniversary of the voyage of Christopher Columbus. According to the exhibit, Cape Canaveral, translated as "Place of the Cane Bearers", was named by Spanish Cape explorer Francisco Gordillo after he was shot by an Ais arrow made of cane.
Cape Canaveral has also been roughly translated as "Point of Reeds" or "Point of Canes". While there is no actual sugar cane indigenous to the Cape Canaveral area, there are several forms of plants that resemble sugar cane. These include a type of bamboo reed dubbed "nomal cane" by early U.S. residents of the Cape. This plant very much resembles sugar cane when seen from offshore. It is more likely that the traditional account of the naming of Cape Canaveral is correct, that Spanish sailors named the area Cape Canaveral because they believed they saw sugar cane growing along the coastline. There is no clearly defined historical account of where the name actually came from.