Tuesday, August 9, 2022

From the Magazine: Down to Earth

She doesn’t exactly see dead people, but Alanna Lecher, 34, is often up to her elbows in their lives. Lecher is an associate professor of environmental science at Lynn University—and a self-described nerd—who has been working lately with archaeologists on a shell midden to see if groundwater is rising here and, if so, how it affects our local archaeological sites. (Which, by the way, are all over the place.)

A shell midden is a depository of shells and bones and other refuse discarded by indigenous early inhabitants, in this case the Jaega and Tequesta tribes, who lived here thousands of years ago until their gradual disappearance after the Spanish arrived.

HOW IT WORKS

“Groundwater is going to flow to the ocean. As sea level rises [through melting glaciers and warmer expanding water], that discharge to the ocean slows. … What we found is that over time, as sea level rises, that makes the elevation between land and sea smaller because the sea is coming up. You get less groundwater discharge, and that raises the groundwater table. … [and that’s what compromises these archaeological sites].”

WHAT SHE STUDIED

“We excavated and took sediment samples to measure how wet the artifacts are getting. We also pulled data from all over the state, and we looked at groundwater levels at other archaeological sites and found that those sites are in danger as well. … You learn about things like past climate based on the types of artifacts we find, what the people ate. … Was it more of a marine environment or was it freshwater, based on the kind of fish they ate? You can also do chemical analysis of the shell, which is something we are doing with [the Smithsonian Institution]. We can find past indicators of climate and oceanic conditions. Changes in salinity, for example.”

ON ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES HERE

“There are so many archaeological sites in Palm Beach County; there are hundreds just on the barrier island [here]. If you go to one of the beach parks you’ll see slight elevation changes; a lot of times those are actually middens. … A lot of the artifacts are just fragments. … This was not an agricultural society—there was just so much food already available here through the native flora—sea grapes, coco plums, a tremendous amount of oyster and sea turtle and various types of fish. … It was an all-you-can-eat buffet of easy-to-harvest food. … There is anecdotal evidence of the Spanish sailors’ reports of how noisy the sea turtles were at night, there were so many of them on the beach.”

WOW MOMENT

“How common these sites are, how integrated they are into the world around us. They are under parking lots, next to playgrounds. It’s almost like if you spent your life colorblind and then someone pointed out the color red, and then you just saw it everywhere; that’s what it’s felt like working with an archaeologist.”

WHEN HER LOVE AFFAIR WITH SCIENCE BEGAN

“I wanted to study environmental science as long as I can remember. … For every birthday and Christmas I wanted a microscope, I wanted chemistry kits. … I got a trip to the Museum of Science and Industry for a birthday one year; I was so thrilled.”

WHY LYNN

If you go to a [firstranked] research university like UF or FSU or USF, the faculty has to devote most of its time to its research and its graduate students. … My freshman year at USF, my environmental professor hired me as a lab technician and helped me learn what research is about … and really guided me through applying to grad school, because I was a first-generation college student. … I wanted to pass that on. I wanted to work with undergraduates to mentor them to help them achieve their dreams, to give them research opportunities. Lynn is so very focused on the undergraduate experience. Although we do have a masters program in biology, I’m allowed to spend as much time as I want working with undergraduates to follow that path that someone helped me with.”

This story is from the July/August 2022 issue of Boca magazine. For more like this, click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Marie Speed
Marie Speed is group editor of all JES publications, including Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Worth Avenue, Mizner’s Dream and the annual publication for the Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce. She also oversees editorial operations of the company’s Salt Lake City magazines. Her community involvement has ranged from work with the Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce to a longtime board member position at Caridad Center. She is also on the George Snow Scholarship Fund review committee. She is a past officer of the Florida Magazine Association and a member of Class XVII of Leadership Florida. In her spare time, Marie enjoys South Florida’s natural world through hiking and kayaking, and she is an avid reader and an enthusiastic cook.

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