By Mike Toner

Spring 2014: In the far corner of northwestern Alaska, archaeological deposits containing a record of 5,000 years of human habitation—ancient campsites of the Inupiaq people that have been preserved in the undulating beach ridges of Cape Krusenstern National Monument—are being washed away by the rising waters of the Chukchi Sea.

In central Florida, episodic droughts and falling water levels in shallow interior lakes are uncovering the soggy remains of hundreds of prehistoric dugout canoes, exposing them to the sun and other elements.

In New Mexico forest fires, magnified by drought and counterproductive forest management practices, threaten cultural resources as diverse as historic gold mining cabins in the Gila National Forest and prehistoric pueblos in the Santa Fe National Forest.

In central Texas, frequent region-wide droughts have dropped water levels in man-made reservoirs along the lower Colorado River, and left hundreds of once-submerged archaeological sites high, dry, and easy prey for artifact hunters.

Climates are always changing. But as evidence mounts that the pace of change has accelerated, myriad archaeological sites are endangered. Along the Mississippi Delta south of New Orleans, prehistoric shell middens—some dating back 4,000 years—are disappearing. Due to the rising sea level and subsiding land, Louisiana has lost 200 square miles of land to the Gulf of Mexico in the last half century.

“There are 500 to 1,000 significant archaeological sites in coastal Louisiana, and I would say we have lost 20 to 30 per cent of them in the last 50 years,” says Richard Weinstein, an archaeologist with Coastal Environments Inc. in Baton Rouge. “It’s a real tragedy. These sites are chock full of ecological data that could tell us something about past climate change.”


Read More in our Spring 2014 Issue of American Archaeology.

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