LSU Civil and Environmental Engineering, Geography and Anthropology Research Preservation of Native American Sites

August 9, 2023 

BATON ROUGE, LA – Research has shown that the Louisiana coast is slipping away little by little, which will continue to impact coastal communities. One such community that goes mostly unnoticed are Native Americans, whose archaeological sites are greatly affected by coastal erosion. Wanting to help Louisiana tribes sustain their sacred ground, faculty in the LSU Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and LSU Department of Geography and Anthropology are working alongside other Louisiana universities to evaluate and determine how these tribes can protect their land.

LSU Civil and Environmental Engineering Associate Professor Navid Jafari has teamed up with LSU Geography and Anthropology Associate Professors Kory Konsoer (principal investigator) and Jill Trepanier—along with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette anthropology department, Tulane University’s archaeology department, and the National Park Service—to come up with a vulnerability and risk assessment that can inform mitigation plans for preserving Louisiana Native American tribes’ archaeological sites, such as earthen mounds.

The project—officially known as the Mississippi River Delta Archaeological Mitigation, or MRDAM, project—is funded by a two-year, $293,000 grant from the U.S. Geological Survey-South Central Climate Adaptation Science Center.

“This is a really exciting project because it’s interfacing archaeology with engineering,” Jafari said.

“The whole motivation behind the [MRDAM] project is to focus on cultural resources that are being impacted and bring them to light,” Konsoer said. “You have the coastal zone of Louisiana that is in crisis, but a lot of the emphasis is on the broader picture—ecosystem, infrastructure—and this is trying to bring a little more attention to those cultural resources that include Native American archaeological sites, like earthen mounds, some of which are single mound sites while others are more complex, such as a series of mounds typically built in an oval or circle with a central plaza communal space within in it. There are hundreds of these sites in coastal Louisiana. Some of them are already lost; some are being actively eroded; some are subsiding and becoming inundated with water. Right now, it may be subsidence or storm surge, but as we lose more land, those sites will be exposed to the coastline and have active wave erosion.” 

Since the sites are at different positions within the coastal zone, they will experience different pressures from climate change, sea-level rise, and land loss. 

“Extreme weather behavior is expected to worsen in our changing climate, including more severe hurricanes and higher intensity precipitation,” Trepanier said. “We want to try and provide as much insight as possible into what the future may look like for these sites, so they can make decisions on how to best protect their resources.”

“We’re working with tribes to find out which sites are most important to them, how they would like the sites preserved, listening to oral histories, and learning the significance of these sites,” Konsoer said. “For myself as a geomorphologist, and [Jafari] in geotechnical engineering, we hope that through these collaborations we’ll be able to learn more about how these mound sites were constructed and their erodibility.”

“I think something that has been under-investigated is the construction of these mounds,” Jafari added. 

He said that the LSU mounds are made of two different soils, one of which is siltier and the other more clay, meaning they were sourced from different areas. 

“It’s quite interesting to get an idea of what materials they used and how they engineered them to have higher strengths, leading to high mounds without any landslide or slope issues,” Jafari said. “We’re coming from an engineering perspective to look at their strengths and index properties. When doing this, you can see how resilient they’ll be to sea level rise.”

The team’s first step is to find out which mounds are more resilient so it knows where to prioritize resources. Next, will be a discussion with the tribes on how they want to mitigate, such as doing shoreline protection to keep the mounds from eroding. 

“It’s up to the tribal partners on how they’d like to move forward, whether it’s preservation or mitigation,” Konsoer said. 

Michael Rodgers, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, is helping on the MRDAM project and has been communicating with the tribes. He will be guiding interviews and workshops to direct MRDAM’s efforts and center the concerns of stakeholders. 

“I’m serving as a cultural anthropologist, and my role is to facilitate with the Louisiana tribes to see if they’re interested in helping us with the project,” Rodgers said. “We want to put them in the driver’s seat in determining what sites are most important to them and what they want done to the sites. Mitigation is up to them.”

Rodgers said the MRDAM team would like to expand this research opportunity to as many Louisiana tribes as they can. Currently, they are looking to work with the Chitimacha tribe and have reached out to the Houma tribe.

“I think what makes this a special project is having the tribe members lead us in accomplishing what they want us to accomplish,” Rodgers said. “This is important. It’s a very existential moment for a lot of these things. It’s a very good project with a lot of talented people involved.”

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Contact: Libby Haydel
Communications Manager