Our choice of words can kill us.

Everyone knows that a barrel of something flammable is dangerous. We keep barrels full of gasoline away from heat and sparks. But an empty barrel?

An empty barrel that once held gasoline can be even more dangerous. The barrel has been emptied of its liquid contents, but it will be full of flammable vapors – weightless, invisible, and deadly.

Contemporary safety labels have helped – fuel drums are required to have warnings that stress the danger of “empty” containers – but still, people die every year after assuming that an empty barrel will be harmless.


We often refer to the places where civilizations once thrived as ruins. People inhabited these places long ago and carried out all the bustle of living – they slept, cooked, ate, worked, talked, and traded within the boundaries of a community that then slid into disuse and disrepair.

From the vantage of the present, ruins often seem to belong to a single era: the past. We live now, and people lived there then.

But the past is almost incomprehensibly vast. Humans have been living in most regions of North America for 10,000 to 20,000 years. (Which is an enormous margin of error – for more on the debate about when humans first settled in various regions of the Americas, you should read Jennifer Raff’s Origin, which I reviewed for The ABT.)

Long, long ago, there were already ancient ruins. At times – perhaps because the local climate had shifted enough to make an area less habitable – these ruins were completely abandoned. At other times, new communities were established atop the remnants of the prior era, and elements of the ruins were restored or repurposed by new inhabitants.

But sometimes ruins were intentionally left empty even after people returned. About 1,200 years ago in Ucanal, a city in Guatemala, a new regime intentionally left the crumbling remnants of their ancestors’ civilization at the center of the new capital. About 1,500 years ago in Rio Viejo, a city in Mexico, a new regime added monoliths with carved prayers, sacrificial offerings, and their own portraits at the entrance to an area full of disused, centuries-old temples and plazas. About 500 years ago in Cahokia, a city in southern Illinois that had been abandoned for nearly a century due to calamitous cycles of flooding and drought, the returning people chose not to re-establish their living quarters directly over the homes of their ancestors.

It’s likely that these people all preserved stories of when those ruins had been actively populated – a recent study by Patrick Nunn & Margaret Cook argues that Polynesian oral tradition preserved stories of particularly dramatic climate change events over thousands of years, not just hundreds. The returning people likely felt a personal, spiritual connection to the prior inhabitants.

And ruins – places that are empty of the bustle of current life – are full of spirits.

Such ruins may have been kept intentionally separate from day-to-day activities, the better to preserve their sacred status. Contemporary people make similar choices: we maintain separate spaces for contemplation or prayer; we reserve seemingly functional objects, like special sets of plates or decorations, for the holy days or holidays that punctuate our calendars.

But when European colonialists arrived in the Americas – people who did not feel a personal or spiritual connection to anyone who’d inhabited these lands before them – they asserted that the ruins were merely empty. That there was no reason not to take, to fence, to farm (in the process, often depleting soil quality and biodiversity that had been cultivated through centuries or even millennia of active Indigenous management).


Southern Florida is an enticing place to live. Indeed, this region has been an enticing place to live for many thousands of years, with sufficiently abundant wild food sources to support intensely hierarchical civilizations like the Calusa – a rarity among non-farming cultures. Researchers have found evidence that the Tequesta settlement in modern-day Miami was populated for at least 2,000 years – from about 1,500 BCE to 500 CE – even though this region’s climate is particularly bad for preserving archaeological evidence.

But now – after the arrival of European colonialists, influenza, and the worldview of capitalism – the Tequesta settlement is “empty.” No one is working, eating, or sleeping there. And so – despite the archaeological relics and burial grounds that lie beneath layers of more-recent dirt; despite the spirits that currently fill the space– a wealthy developer wants to build.

Presumably there will be court cases. But the outcome isn’t in much doubt. Almost inevitably, the luxury high rises will rise.

The land will not stay empty.

Although, actually, most luxury high rises in Miami are empty – most units are purchased simply as a commodity to store wealth.

And in time – perhaps very little time – the climate will shift again. Then these new high rises, too, will crumble into ruin.






header image by James Walsh on flickr.