Miami high-rises are being built on an ancient Indigenous site
MIAMI, FL - MAY 10: Archaeologists Adrian Espinosa and Raymond Skinner (L-R), with the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, work on excavating a site where the conservancy found evidence that at one time, more than 1,000 years ago a Tequesta Indian village stood on the site which would have been at the mouth of the Miami River on May 10, 2013 in Miami, Florida. The dig in present day's downtown is on the future site of Metropolitan Miami’s new movie theater. Most of the artifacts that are discovered will be displayed at HistoryMiami. The excavation is expected to wrap up this summer with the movie theater scheduled to open toward the end of 2014/early 2015. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A long-awaited vote to preserve an ancient Indigenous market site at the southern bank of the Miami River, Florida was delayed this month by the city’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board. Archeologists say the Brickell neighborhood location in the city’s financial center—where luxury real estate development has boomed in the last 10 years—is the site of a major prehistoric discovery of artifacts and should be preserved and protected. 

Archaeologists have discovered 7,000 year-old spearheads, stone points from what is called the Archaic period, nets and twine made of plant fiber, and a wooden device used to start fires, among other artifacts. Human remains including teeth and a gravesite with skeletal fragments, were also discovered. Animal remains of fish, reptiles, deer, a now extinct Caribbean monk seal, and a megalodon tooth were also a part of the discovery, painting a vibrant picture of a thriving Indigenous community that long predates Miami’s present. After protests from archaeologists and Indigenous community members, the city approved the development of two of three Related Group proposed towers at 77 SE 5th St on April 4. The buildings will include luxury high-rise Baccarat Residences, owned by the Related Group. The artifacts will be preserved, but a vote for official historic designation of the site will be delayed until after the archaeological work is completed. Miami’s Miccosukee, Taino, and Seminole communities say preserving the site is essential to respecting past and present Indigenous communities. 

“Someone has to speak out for the ancestors,” said Betty Osceola, a Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida member and advocate. “It’s important that the history of this area doesn’t get lost.” 

At least 200 community members joined Osceola in Brickell for a prayer walk along the river on March 18. The group walked past the Miami Circle National Historic Landmark and to the site currently up for debate. 

“A lot of young people don’t know the history of different civilizations or their own history,” Osceola said during the walk. “These new buildings, they look all shiny or whatever. But those are dead buildings, that’s death. The trees are life; they’re living, they’re breathing, they’re cleaning your air. One hundred years from now, these buildings aren’t going to mean anything. But what’s in the ground that exists, all that history that is there has the right to continue in the place where it’s existed.”

Archeologists at the Archeological and Historical Conservancy have been quietly digging into the Related Group’s properties for over a year, and they believe the site was a Tequesta marketplace built over 2,500 years ago. The discoveries are allegedly some of the most significant excavated in the past 25 years, as Brickell has continued to be rapidly developed. The findings in this particular market place location include human remains, stone spear points, and postholes in the limestone that point to the existence of Tequesta buildings and other items that date back 7,000 years. The surrounding area is also known to have been a significant trading post for the Tequesta people. Most notably, this includes the Miami Circle National Historic Landmark, thought to be about 2,000 years old and was discovered in 1998.

“It’s well known that the whole area of the mouth of the river is an archaeological zone,” said William Pestle, an anthropologist who has consulted on the project. “But, there has been very little public information or discussion about this site.”

According to an archaeologist who worked directly on the site for the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy and has requested to remain anonymous, it was seemingly an intentional decision by Related Group to hold off on announcing the discovery of the ancient artifacts. 

“People think they’re going to stop digging if they get the [historical] designation,” the archaeologist said. “But it’s way too late for that. We’re 98% done. The construction has been following [the digging] as soon as we’re done. They’ve been laying the concrete over. All the news came out right at the end, right when everything was so far developed already, that there’s nothing anyone could do.”

The 77 SE 5th Street location has been marred with problems from the start, even causing environmental and health problems for archaeologists, including fainting, compulsive sneezing, and fainting. The site is on a former oil refinery Standard Oil tanks, and the possible presence of harmful chemicals like cancer-causing benzene have been both a cause for concern and questions. As a result, the archaeologists were required to take a health and safety training course. In December 2022, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaint was filed against Related Group for health concerns and the investigation is still open.

“I don’t know who called OSHA, but they shut [the site] down for a couple of weeks right before Christmas,” the archaeologist said. “They said, if this happens a third time, the site will be permanently shut down.”

According to the archaeologist, OSHA has issued a test order to demand more testing on the chemical area. But at the meeting on April 4, a group of preservationists called for a freeze on permitting and construction on the remainder of the property until they can decide whether or not to grant historic designation. This process could take months. Developers at Related Group called for a delay in the vote, citing a lack of historical significance. In an op-ed in The Miami Herald, developers called into question the sanctity of the space and said it was not as historically significant as the Miami Circle. Indigenous advocates and community members say that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“These [developers] have these experts and feel that these artifacts need to be removed and put into universities or museums of higher learning. Why do people think that?” Osceola said. “I’m an Indigenous person, yet somebody that’s educated has the right to make decisions about my ancestors. The experts in this situation are the Indigenous people themselves, not the archaeologists studying. I always say I’m a living fossil and there are other living fossils of other tribes. If you want to learn about the tribes, ask the people who are alive today, don’t dig up their ancestors to study them.”

Development in Miami’s burgeoning downtown neighborhood has not always successfully preserved Tequesta remains. There was a similar archaeological development site along the river that Pestle tried to fight against in 2014, but met with resistance from the city. Pestle sued the city and tried to stop the site from being destroyed, but they lost the lawsuit and the appeal. Other historic Tequesta sites in Brickell have met similar fates, including one in 2007 where human remains were found. The site is believed to have been a Tequesta burial mound. The archaeologists consulted with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and removed the bodies. 

“It happens, unfortunately, here in Florida, and probably elsewhere, that Indigenous people, other people, marginalized people, their ancestors get buried, and either buildings are put over them, or they’re dug up and removed,” Osceola said. “ If you can’t respect the dead, how can you respect the earth? No wonder that the water is so polluted, the environment is so polluted … people don’t know how to respect each other and the earth.”

The historical preservation board is expected to make a decision on the historical designation in July. If the designation is approved, Related Group would be required to preserve all or a portion of the site, and exhibit the artifacts in a public space while highlighting the archaeological and historical significance. 

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...