Damage at summit of a mound (photo by Annisa Karim; all images courtesy the Florida Museum of Natural History)

The National Science Foundation has awarded three research institutions a collective $65,000 in emergency funding to survey the damages across 20 square miles of Florida’s Pine Island Sound and Estero Bay. Home to several precious archaeological sites of the Native Calusa people, who inhabited the region until the late 1700s, Pine Island was particularly brutalized by Hurricane Ian last September and continues to suffer from long-lasting effects of the Category 4 storm.

Researchers from the Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Georgia, and Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) have set out to examine the level of destruction, which includes heavy erosion and vegetation damage, to the remaining Calusa sites caused by the 150 mph winds and aggressive storm surge. The Calusa people resided on the South Florida coast for over a thousand years before their villages were wiped out by European explorers.

“By the 16th century, the Calusa were arguably one of the most politically complex non-agrarian societies in North America, and they were remarkable for their resilience in the face of European colonialism,” principal investigator and Florida Museum Curator Michelle Lefebvre said in a statement, pointing to the fact that the coastal population subsisted primarily on fish and shellfish.

Damage to the canal (photo by Michelle LeFebvre)

Within the Pineland Archeological District on Pine Island, the museum’s Randell Research Center encompasses dozens of acres of Calusa-made shell mounds, middens, fish corrals, remnants of an elaborate canal system, and the one-mile Calusa Heritage Trail — all of which sustained damages or were potentially destroyed by the storm according to the press release.

“The Calusa cultural heritage sites across this region are significant to many different communities for many reasons,” LeFebvre told Hyperallergic. “First, these places have great ancestral meaning to the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida. These sites are also supported by a remarkable network of cultural and biological heritage stewards, and their care and work make it possible for these places to serve as valued community resources that we must continue to honor and protect.”

Such cultural sites yield invaluable information about the survival mechanisms of the Calusa, who were said to have had a powerful, hierarchical society of tens of thousands of people that depended on estuaries. The Calusa people are believed to be the first “shell collectors” for their use of shells in weaponry, hunting gear, jewelry, tools, and utensils. Isabelle Holland-Lulewicz, an assistant professor at Penn State and research grant collaborator, described the impacted areas as containing “some of the most well-preserved examples of Indigenous architecture in the southeastern United States.”

Team observing post-storm re-growth on a mound and invasive species (photo by Michelle LeFebvre)

Nicolas Gauthier, the museum’s curator of artificial intelligence, will use pre- and post-hurricane satellite imagery combined with photographs from drone surveys conducted by the University of Georgia to develop damage assessment maps as well.

“We’re using machine learning to trawl though a massive amount of data to find out which areas have been most affected and to assess current and future vulnerabilities to storm events,” Gauthier said, indicating that the maps will be publicly available to those on the ground for continual restoration efforts.

Despite the overwhelming damage in the wake of Hurricane Ian, the collaborative research team remains optimistic about the restoration and preservation of Calusa historical landmarks. “This has all happened before,” Gauthier remarked, referencing Florida’s hurricane season.

“People have lived and thrived here for thousands of years, so we hope to learn as much about these sites’ continued resilience over the long term as we do their short-term vulnerability.”

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...