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Archaeologist Adrian Espinosa, with Florida's Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, works on excavating a site in downtown Miami where a Tequesta Indian village once stood.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JOE RAEDLE, GETTY IMAGES

Glenn Hodges

for National Geographic

Published March 12, 2014

As construction of the final stage of a $600 million development in downtown Miami drew near, Miamians looked forward to getting a new 34-story hotel, with movie theaters and restaurants, on what had been a vacant two-acre lot.

What they got instead at Met Square was a landmark archaeological discovery and a roiling controversy.

It turns out that Tequesta Indians, who inhabited southern Florida for some 2,000 years, built a sizeable village on this site 1,500 years ago, and its signature features are virtually unique: postholes for circular buildings, drilled directly into the limestone bedrock.

The only other place these kind of postholes have been found in North America, says Robert Carr, the lead archaeologist for the excavation, is the Miami Circle, a site less than a half mile away (which he also discovered in 1998). Faced with a lawsuit by preservationists, the would-be developer of that site backed down and sold the property to the state.

The Miami Circle is now a National Historic Landmark, and with the Met Square site also a likely candidate for landmark designation, the developer, MDM Development Group, and preservationists are battling over the site's future. At stake: millions of dollars, versus a rare portal into a vanished past.

"The Tequesta were the earliest group to establish permanent villages in southeast Florida," says Jeff Ransom, Miami-Dade County's archaeologist, who has concurred with Carr's conclusions about the site. With thousands of postholes outlining the circumference of eight buildings, each roughly 40 feet in diameter, Carr estimates that up to a thousand people once lived in the ancient village, which extended a half mile along the north bank of the Miami River, near its confluence with Biscayne Bay.

"It's so unusual to actually have the settlement plan preserved like that," he says. He has also discovered the remnants of structures that appear to be elevated platforms—perhaps boardwalks.

 Archaeologist Mike Grady, with the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, holds a tool made from the center spiral of a conch shell
A man holds a tool made from the center spiral of a conch shell, found on the newly uncovered site of a Tequesta Indian village.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOE RAEDLE, GETTY IMAGES

Tequesta Culture Complex, Unusual

"This is not the general picture people once had of roaming bands of Native Americans foraging in the Everglades," Carr says. "These people were more complex, with larger towns and a more sedentary lifestyle."

But unlike most sedentary cultures, the Tequesta didn't practice agriculture. Because the climate was warm year-round, the Indians subsisted on a reliable diet of seafood and native plant foods, enjoying a level of sociopolitical complexity that becomes possible when you're not on the move all the time. "That's rare," Ransom says. "They had a chiefdom without agriculture. You don't see that in other parts of the United States."

What's also rare about the Tequesta, says Ransom: "They thrived even 200 years after contact with Europeans. They were one of the first Native American groups encountered by Ponce de León when he came here in 1513. The historical records show he encountered them in Biscayne Bay—so this is possibly the site he saw."

The Tequesta were gone by the late 18th century. First European diseases like smallpox took a heavy toll; the survivors left Florida for good when the British took control from Spain in 1763. "They didn't want to be enslaved, and that's what was going to happen," Ransom says. It's believed they resettled in Cuba.

Seminoles have claimed the Tequesta as ancestors, but their surest legacy at this point is archaeological. That, says Carr, is why this site is so significant. "Most of the area downtown has already been destroyed by development," he says. "This is the last location where a site has survived."

People work at a site in downtown Miami.
An archaeologist works at the Miami site, which may be one of the most significant prehistoric sites in the United States.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LYNN SLADKY, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Fate of the Rare Site

What happens next is unclear. State and county preservation officials would like to see the Met Square development plans revised, but the decision ultimately rests with the city of Miami.

In February, Miami's Historic and Environmental Preservation Board rejected MDM's proposal to remove a portion of the postholed bedrock for a visitor exhibit and proceed with the development as planned, arguing that it's insufficient protection for such a historically significant site.

MDM, whose attorney has reportedly called Carr's conclusions about the Tequesta site "garbage," "hokum," and "made up out of whole cloth," has appealed the board's decision to the City Commission.

12 comments
George Kalivretenos
George Kalivretenos

I am all for the preservation of historical sites but think of this…. 2000 years from now when they unearth the epic or the icon or the met 1, 2 or 3 or the JW or any of the other buildings do you think that those explorers will keep our sites intact. HELL not hey wont. At this point in time, this is an eye sore and needs to be completed as the project it is to be. There are no Indians left and the ones that are, are taking all of us Floridians monies at the casinos. It is time we stood up and said...NO MORE!

Have you seen the site across the river that they did keep? It looks like a yellow parcel of pee and poop form all the dogs that go over there. It would seem to me that the Indians would not care but certainly would care if they knew that it was being ridiculed with pee and poop. Last thoughts. I guarantee if you gave the land to the Indians, they would do what????? BUILD A FRIGGIN CASINO!!

Tamsin Dudley
Tamsin Dudley

I'm sorry to say that I fear the hotel will win out, I find more people are intrested in shops movies and big food chains than in the wonder of history especially anything before the 1863, Civil War,  Native American and history and pre-history forget it does not exist. Please do not think I'm having a pop at the Americans I'm not I find it here in the UK as well. Its so sad

robert crowell
robert crowell

what ?don't we have enough movie theaters to show Rocky 99 in ? or Pirates 10 ? and I'msure we could always use another half full hotel

Crystal Sp
Crystal Sp

I for one certainly hope the site maintains presidency over yet another Hotel! Especially considering its rarety. And seeing as how "white man" is what happened to most native American tribes...we owe them at least this much!! To preserve their former home! Sparx


Carter Fox Jr.
Carter Fox Jr.

In a few years when Florida needs money, and someone will build on it and nothing will be said about it to anyone! 

Vanessa Ehrhardt
Vanessa Ehrhardt

Why ruin the site by putting a hotel on top of it? Our ancestry is more important now than it ever has been. People need to see it.

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

There's no reason for this site to be destroyed. Here in the UK most towns and cities have many buildings such as banks, restaurants and stores built over preserved archaeological remains. Almost all of them welcome interested members of the public who simply wish to visit their basements to view remains such as Roman villas, basilicas, hypocausts and shops as well as Saxon cemeteries, Viking houses and shops and many other remains.

For many years planning permission for new buildings have insisted that such remains are preserved and kept accessible to the public. Most stores and other organisations actually welcome such features in their buildings as they attract people who probably wouldn't otherwise have visited.

There's no reason these American remains can't be preserved in the basement or the floor space of a new hotel. Not only would they be preserved for future generations but they would be a real asset to the hotel and to the area. It would be a real shame simply to destroy them.     

KENNETH LANE
KENNETH LANE

Florida has no problem with destroying honest elections so yes they can do most anything -------except creat a fair and honest state------

Anna F.
Anna F.

In Rome there is an hotel that managed to preserve a roman site under the garage (that was the constraint for the building permit). You can visit it freely. Anyway, I would prefer a full archological site, expecially in the US where there are so few, than another big ugly hotel!

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

It would be interesting if they could incorporate the ancient site into the structure of the development to showcase how the old can coincide with the new in an educational way. It would not be the first time such a site was actually inside a new building. And best of all is that it would protect the site from further degradation. Sounds like a Win-Win situation to me!

m s
m s

@KENNETH LANE  unfortunately the idiots there did it again in the most recent special election. So much for them wanting to improve their lives, they continue to vote in these neanderthals into office and wonder why nothing ever improves.


I don't see this going anyplace good, that site will most likely be destroyed by the rich just like everything else they touch these days.

Crystal Sp
Crystal Sp

@Dwayne LaGrou

 The unfortunate side to this is that the rich man prefers to plow over, not preserve. I'd rather not see the hotel even built! but if it must be, will the preservation be required? or will it become an " oh, screw it, we'll just plow it down" situation. And regardless of money...superstition still should haunt them. NEVER mess with a Native American site, graveyard, or anything else! As a courtesy, and a general rule of thumb!

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