Rising seas threaten hundreds of Native American heritage sites along Florida’s Gulf Coast

Pictured: Tallahassee, Florida: Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park.(Photo: Ebyabe, CC BY-SA 3.0 [creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0])

In just five Florida Panhandle counties, sea level rise could swamp more than 500 archaeological sites that tell the story of when and how Native Americans lived along the Gulf Coast

Jayur Mehta and Tara Skipton

Native North Americans first arrived in Florida approximately 14,550 years ago. Evidence for these stone-tool-wielding, megafauna-hunting peoples can be found at the bottom of numerous limestone freshwater sinkholes in Florida’s Panhandle and along the ancient shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico.

Specialized archaeologists using scuba gear, remote sensing equipment or submersibles can study underwater sites if they are not deeply buried or destroyed by erosion. This is important because Florida’s archaeological resources face significant threats due to sea level rise driven by climate change. According to a new U.N. report, global sea levels could increase by over 3 feet by the year 2100.

Archaeological sites contain evidence of what people ate in the past, what kinds of houses they built, how they buried their dead and what they did to memorialize stories, leadership and community. These places literally embody human lives, and are the only records we have of prehistoric indigenous peoples of the New World.

Between the years 1500 and 1850, 2.5 million Europeans migrated to the New World. As a consequence of their arrival, 50 million indigenous people died from disease, massacres and slavery.

As scholars who study anthropology and archaeology, we believe that the genocide of these oral historical and literate societies, native to North, South and Central America, makes it even more important to preserve their ancient sites. Without them, we may never be able to learn the history of the first peoples of this land.

Pictured: Sea level rise in the Big Bend region of Florida, modeled by Tara Skipton.
Sea level rise in the Big Bend region of Florida, modeled by Tara Skipton.(Image: Tara Skipton)

Valuable and vulnerable

At present, 1,539 archaeological sites are located at or below sea level in Florida. By A.D. 2100 up to 6,820 will become submerged by sea level rise.

Florida’s Big Bend region – the eastern half of the Panhandle – contains 541 Native American archaeological sites, found from the coast to inland hills and river valleys. They include earthen and shell mounds and shell middens, or refuse heaps. These sites belong to Deptford, Swift Creek, Weeden Island or Fort Walton and Apalachee cultures, and represent a time period of over 2,000 years of occupation, from 500 B.C. to 1540 A.D.

Pictured: This map shows the geological definition of the Big Bend Coast (blue) and the definition used by private agencies serving the Big Bend Region (red).
Pictured: This map shows the geological definition of the Big Bend Coast (blue) and the definition used by private agencies serving the Big Bend Region (red).(Image: Donald Albury, CC BY-SA 4.0 [creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0])

Archaeological sites belonging to these cultures in the Gulf of Mexico region represent a continuation of earlier lifeways dating as far back as 7,000 years ago. But they also mark shifts in ceramic and stone toolmaking technology, and significant changes in ceremonies associated with monument construction and burial of the dead.

Notable sites in this region include Mound Field, Bird Hammock and Garden Patch – places where hunter-fisher-gatherers built monuments, traded for goods and practiced crafts such as basketry and bead and pottery production.

The Garden Patch site, a barely investigated Middle Woodland shell midden and six-mound complex, is one of Florida’s innumerable cultural resources at risk. With roughly 5 to 6 feet of additional sea level rise, most low-lying areas at the site will be flooded, and saltwater will kill grasses and trees. With no tree cover or vegetation, the site’s mounds, middens and mortuary remains will erode away and be permanently destroyed.

There are cost-effective ways to stabilize the site and make it more resilient to climate change. They include planting salt-tolerant grasses and shrubs, such as spartina and saline-adapted mangroves, and building sea walls and levees to redirect water. However, studies show that hard systems like this are not always effective and can have negative environmental effects on surrounding areas.

An even more effective response is raising public awareness of America’s Native and Indigenous heritage, and encouraging study of these sites while they are still above water.

Saving stories by saving places

Other parts of the Gulf coast, such as the Mississippi River Delta and coastal Louisiana, are comprised mainly of low-lying marshes that are extremely vulnerable to sea level rise. In contrast, Big Bend interior cities like Tallahassee will be relatively well protected by geographic features that prevent seawater from penetrating far inland.

Pictured: Shell rings along the U.S. southeast coast were the largest structures in North America when they were built 3,000-5,000 years ago. Researchers believe they were places of celebration, ritual and feasting.
Shell rings along the U.S. southeast coast were the largest structures in North America when they were built 3,000-5,000 years ago. Researchers believe they were places of celebration, ritual and feasting.(Image: NPS SEAC)

Except for universities, hospitals and government in Leon County and Tallahassee, the main industries in the coastal Big Bend region are fishing, farming and tourism, and the population of the entire area is just 500,000. Relatively few people in this part of Florida will be affected by rising seas compared to large, low-lying cities like Tampa, Miami and Jacksonville, with a collective population of 9.6 million people.

However, infrastructure along the coast will be significantly affected. For example, St. George Island State Park, which is on a 28-mile barrier island, incurred over US$5 million in damage from Hurricane Michael in October 2018, and the entire island will be inundated with as little as one meter, or about 3 feet, of sea level rise.

American history is Native American, African American, Latinx, Asian and European. Our cumulative story begins 15,000 years ago and ends when we decide. In our view, Americans and scholars have an obligation to try to save our collective histories.

The discovery of stone tools alongside mastodon bones in a Florida river shows that humans settled the southeastern U.S. up to 1,500 years earlier than scientists previously believed.

By advocating for the study of the past, we hope to encourage documentation of endangered landscapes, collaborative data recording, multi-agency partnerships and acknowledgment that the U.S. is going to lose sites that are parts of its heritage. Rather than focusing on preserving singular parts of America’s past, like Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in North America – which is also in a low-lying and threatened environment – we want to see lesser-known features of America’s past documented and saved as well.

As we see it, Americans’ collective identities are rooted in a shared past and in physical landscapes and places. That makes saving these places important. The first step is talking about them. The next step begins when scholars and the public come together to learn about the past and advocate for preserving it.

Analise Hollingshead, a former graduate student at Florida State University, contributed to this article.

Dr. Jayur Madhusudan Mehta is an Assistant Professor in Anthropology at Florida State University, specializing in the study of North American Native Americans, human-environment relationships, and the consequences of French and Spanish colonization in the Gulf South. Dr. Mehta earned his PhD in Anthropology from Tulane University (2015) and his MA (2007) from the University of Alabama. He received his BA from the University of North Carolina (2004) and is an avid Tarheel! Dr. Mehta is also a Registered Professional Archaeologist and he has lead excavations in both the United States and Mexico. He is currently lead investigator for the Carson Mounds Archaeological Project (CMAP), a long-term study on the development of hierarchical and agricultural monument-building societies in the Lower Mississippi Valley, and Resilience in the Ancient Gulf South (RAGS), an interdisciplinary investigation into delta formation, hunter-gather settlement dynamics, and monumentality in the Mississippi River Delta region south of New Orleans. Dr. Mehta is a National Geographic research fellow and he has published research in the fields of environmental archaeology, ethnohistory, and indigenous religious and ritual practices.

Tara Skipton is a Graduate Student in Archaeology at Florida State University. She has a Bachelor’s degree in both Anthropology and Geography.

Disclosure statement: Jayur Mehta receives funding from Florida State University Council on Research and Creativity and is an executive board member of the Gulf Communities Research Institute.

Tara Skipton does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Florida State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

Note: originally published at theconversation.com.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1
Stan C
Stan C

We're going to lose the entire Everglades by 2100 and all the sites along the southwest coast of Florida except for maybe the top of Mound Key (for a dew centuries). There's nothing you can do except document what's there and maybe excavate it for storage elsewhere, or leave it in place for excavation by future archaeologists a few millennia from now when the water goes back down.

It is what it is.