11,000-Year-Old Seafaring Indian Sites Discovered on California Island

Chumash Indian tomol crossing

Just offshore from the chock-a-block development of Southern California, archaeologists have discovered some of the oldest sites of human occupation on the Pacific Coast.

On Santa Rosa Island, one of the Channel Islands just 65 kilometers from Santa Barbara, nearly 20 sites have been found that reveal signs of prehistoric human activity, from massive middens of abalone shells to distinctive stone points and tool-making debris.

At least nine of the sites have what archaeologists say is “definitive evidence” of ancient Paleoindian occupation, about half of them having been dated to 11,000 to 12,000 years ago — making their inhabitants some of the earliest known settlers of North America’s West Coast.

“Finding these sites and the definitive evidence for early occupation is crucial and tells us that people were there, occupying the landscape at the end of the Pleistocene,” said Dr. Torben Rick of the Smithsonian Institution, who led the survey that uncovered the sites.

The discovery adds hefty new data to the already mounting evidence that maritime Paleoindians — also known as Paleocoastal peoples — lived along the California coast at the end of the last ice age.

Chumash Indian tomol crossing
Modern members of the Chumash, who have inhabited the Channel Islands for thousands of years, re-create a crossing to the islands in a tomol canoe. (NPS)

Such finds have important implications for the history of human migration, suggesting that at least some of America’s earliest settlers moved south from Alaska along the coast, rather than farther inland, where retreating glaciers are thought to have allowed passage to the continent’s interior.

Uncovering hard evidence of this coastal migration has proved challenging, however, because the shorelines that Paleocoastal people would have followed have long since been submerged by rising seas.

But in recent years, surveys of California’s modern-day coasts and islands have turned up several prehistoric sites that are still on dry land, farther inland from the now-submerged shores.

It was while studying some of these sites on San Miguel Island — another of the Channel Islands — that Rick and his colleagues made a key observation: They noted that Paleocoastal settlements tended to have certain traits in common that made them more suitable than sites right on the water.

The earliest sites tended to be 1 to 7 kilometers from where the shoreline used to be, for example, in elevated areas that offered commanding views of the coast and often the island’s interior. Optimal locations were also near sources of useful raw materials, like chert for making tools, as well as fresh water and rockshelters or caves for refuge.

Chert crescent tool from San Miguel Island
Distinctive crescent-shaped stone tools, like this from neighboring San Miguel Island, are among the Paleocoastal artifacts that have been identified. (University of Oregon)

With these factors in mind, Rick’s team turned to Santa Rosa Island to survey its previously unexplored southwestern coast. [Find out what similar predictive models have recently found: “13 Ancient Villages Discovered in Wyoming Mountains May Redraw Map of Tribal Migrations“]

The island was already famous as the home of Arlington Man, perhaps the oldest human remains ever found in North America, discovered in 1959 and dated to 13,000 years ago.

But the southwestern portion of the island had received little scientific attention, and it fit many of the criteria Rick’s team had identified. What’s more, it was the steepest part of the island, which meant it had been less susceptible to rising sea levels and more likely to still hold evidence of early sites.

Upon surveying the area, the team found 19 sites that showed signs of human occupation, mostly middens, or piles of detritus left over from generations of tool making and food preparation.

Although they were essentially prehistoric trash piles, these middens offered a wealth of useful archaeological clues, some deposits covering more than 75,000 square meters (over 18 acres).

Nine of the these sites contained the distinctive Channel Island barbed stone points that are indicative of Paleocoastal culture from the late Ice Age, Rick reported, and several also contained caches of shells from red abalone — a staple food of Paleocoastal Indians.

“They probably used boats since they had to get to the island, and they hunted a variety of marine birds, seals and sea lions and collected shellfish,” Rick said. “These are all early clues to human life ways at the [late] Pleistocene.”

The large amounts of shells, found with stone tools several kilometers from the ancient shoreline, suggest that the shellfish were carried inland to be processed, Rick said.

And even more important, the shells — unlike stone — can be radiocarbon dated. All four of the abalone shell middens returned dates from similar ranges, from  10,900 to 12,100 years ago.

Santa Rosa’s ancient inhabitants also left behind a number of unusual crescent-shaped tools made of chipped stone, artifacts similar to those found throughout the Great Basin, typically near water, but whose exact purpose, Rick said, was “a topic of debate.”

Santa Rosa Island paleoindian site
Surveys of the island’s southwestern coast turned up scatterings of stone points, abalone shells, and crescent-shaped tools. (Photo courtesy Torben Rick)

“People have speculated from everything like hunting to even brain surgery — a bizarre 100-year-old idea,” he said. “Today, we think they … would have been used to hunt aquatic birds and possibly other fauna.” [Read about another unusual find in California: “Mass Grave of ‘Prodigal Sons’ in California Poses Prehistoric Mystery“]

One sign absent from any of the newly discovered sites, however, was evidence of construction.

“Unfortunately, there are no clear signs of a structure,” Rick said. “We are hoping to go back soon to one of these sites to excavate a larger area, and we hope to find some of this evidence.”

The discoveries on Santa Rosa will likely bring more attention to the Channel Islands and Southern California for future research into the early coastal settlement of the Americas, Rick said.

But more research at these and other sites is still needed to help clarify the breadth and depth of the first Americans’ occupation on the Pacific Coast, he noted.

“Now the important thing to do is excavate some of these sites in detail to see what more we can learn about ancient cultural practices, environmental changes, and other variables,” he said. “We of course, want to do other surveys like this to find other contemporary sites.

“As excited about these finds as we are, to us they inspire more work.”

Rick and his team report their findings in the Journal of Field Archaeology.


ResearchBlogging.orgTorben C. Rick, Jon M. Erlandson, Nicholas P. Jew, & Leslie A. Reeder-Myers (2013). Archaeological survey, paleogeography, and the search for Late Pleistocene Paleocoastal peoples of Santa Rosa Island, California Journal of Field Archaeology DOI: 10.1179/0093469013Z.00000000065

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  1. […] Pretty neat. 11,000-Year-Old Seafaring Indian Sites Discovered on California Island | Western Digs […]

  2. […] Just offshore from the chock-a-block development of Southern California, archaeologists have discovered some of the oldest sites of human occupation on the Pacific Coast. On Santa Rosa Island, one …  […]

  3. Catalina Island Site

    […] Here is a newer report on the "Paleo" sites at Catalina Island off the California coast. 11,000-Year-Old Seafaring Indian Sites Discovered on California Island | Western Digs […]

  4. Ceri Mcgavisk

    Could the crescent shaped tools have been used for canoe making?

    1. Aaron Bennett

      They look too small and thin for canoe making. Remember that the canoes would have been dugouts. The birchbark canoes wouldn’t come until much later, and in the oat if the country where paper birtches grow. Fire and tools like a adz would be more appropriate for a dugout.

      1. Richard Wisecarver

        The crescent shaped blades look like ulu blades to me or side inserts for lance or harpoon points. As for boats, it seems to me that the channel islands did not have many large trees. Lots od drift wood. Perhaps they were making umiaq type boats. They are usually covered with bearded seal skins or split walrus or sea lion skins by Koniaq, Aleut, Yupik or Inuit Eskimoan folks in Alaska. They can be built over 50 ft. log, are sea worthy and easily pulled up steep shores. They need to dried out regularly out an be used to chase whales or haul heavy cargo. The frames are usually made of drift wood. and easily repaired.

    2. R Lallatin

      Crescentics are also found far inland in the Mojave desert and Great Basin. I doubt people were making canoes in these regions, though there certainly were large pluvial lakes in the Mojave at the end of the last Ice Age.

  5. […] 11,000-Year-Old Seafaring Indian Sites Discovered on California Island | Western Digs [quote] Just offshore from the chock-a-block development of Southern California, archaeologists have discovered some of the oldest sites of human occupation on the Pacific Coast. On Santa Rosa Island, one of the Channel Islands just 65 kilometers from Santa Barbara, nearly 20 sites have been found that reveal signs of prehistoric human activity, from massive middens of abalone shells to distinctive stone points and tool-making debris. At least nine of the sites have what archaeologists say is “definitive evidence” of ancient Paleoindian occupation, about half of them having been dated to 11,000 to 12,000 years ago — making their inhabitants some of the earliest known settlers of North America’s West Coast. [quote] Distinctive crescent-shaped stone tools, like this from neighboring San Miguel Island, are among the Paleocoastal artifacts that have been identified. (University of Oregon) […]

  6. bob wilkinson

    The crescent shaped stone tools look similar to the ulu’s (spelling?) used by the Inuit, often associated with maritime economies sort of a blubber matic. Microwear and residue analysis may produce some interesting results.

  7. Tom Ridenour

    Tomol canoes are built from Red Wood Trees made into planks and sewn together with cordage and a mixture of pine pitch and asphaltum to seal the joints. No Dugouts

    1. Joel

      Do they really still cut down redwoods just for that?

    2. Rebecca T

      True, but the indigenous people of southern California used Tule Balsa Canoes- bundles of reed coated with naturally occurring tar found on the beaches. Southern California, specifically the region of coast adjacent to the Channel Islands, did not grow abundant redwoods, It supports oak forests. Redwoods would be the central coast and points north. The tool looks more to be a food preparation instrument, or a type of sweat scraper.

      1. Bill

        Looks like a fish scaler. Sharp points on the end for the tough ones. Maybe the convex side for preparing skins (?)

  8. John Collins

    Any evidence of them eating sea mammals? I can see them butchering on the beach and then carrying only the flesh up the slope.
    Why establish themselves up-slope? Defensive position? Cool breezes? Folk memory of severe storms or a tsunami? The turmoil associated with the Oldest, Older and particularly the Younger Dryas periods of 11,500 – 12,000 years ago might have been their “current events”.

  9. Emily

    My guess on the crescent-shaped tools is that they were used to scrape the abalone out of the shells. Are they two-sided, meaning a separate use for the convex and serrated concave side?

  10. Lee

    “Indians”? Come on, who uses that terms for Native Americans anymore? Do you know how much confusion that causes? There are actual theories of people traveling across the ocean to populate the Americas, and this terminology makes it sound like that is what you’re talking about. As a writer for a scientific journal, you should know better.

    1. John

      If the term “Indian” is a source of pride and used by the North American Indians today, then the term “Indian” is fine. It’s the political correctness of the generic term “native” that is a fabrication of new thinking. “Indian”, if I remember correctly is a term similar to “Indigenous”. If you thinking that the term “indian” is reserved to people who live in geopolitical India, then you are not respecting their tribal memberships by generically referring to them as the only “indians”. Right?

      1. Lee Johnson

        The term “Indian” was actually mistakenly given to the indigenous population of this continent by Europeans who were lost & thought that they`d landed on the continent of INDIA, another continent, across another ocean that they didn`t know was there… thinking that there was only 1 ocean covering the flat world… Don`t sail TOO far, you may fall off the edge lol
        By the way Signoir Columbo was actually a gifted con man, having studied the writings & maps left behind by the much earlier Viking explorers. The Vikings had been to NewFoundLand in approx. 1050`s a.d era…

    2. JW

      I work with Native Americans who refer to themselves as “indians” or “indian people” and will laugh at you for calling “Native American.” Yeah, “indian” is a misnomer, but Native American and First Nation person are both a mouthful. Others simply identify as members of their ancestral descent. The “Native American” term is generally used by governmental agencies and tribal bureaucrats (and even they and their members identify as “indian” informally), so I find it reflects political issues more than anything else. Since they aren’t from India, they aren’t “Indian” though. Of course people from the subcontinent differentiate much more specifically than “Indian.” A Gujrati is from Gujrat first and the subcontinent second.

  11. Laurie Covarrubias

    Yea for Tom Ridenour! Do you pull?

  12. […] Just offshore from the chock-a-block development of Southern California, archaeologists have discovered some of the oldest sites of human occupation on the Pacific Coast.On Santa Rosa Island, one of the Channel Islands just 65 kilometers from Santa Barbara, nearly 20 sites have been found that reveal signs of prehistoric human activity, from massive middens of abalone shells to distinctive stone points and tool-making debris.At least nine of the sites have what archaeologists say is “definitive evidence” of ancient Paleoindian occupation, about half of them having been dated to 11,000 to 12,000 years ago — making their inhabitants some of the earliest known settlers of North America’s West Coast.“Finding these sites and the definitive evidence for early occupation is crucial and tells us that people were there, occupying the landscape at the end of the Pleistocene,” said Dr. Torben Rick of the Smithsonian Institution, who led the survey that uncovered the sites.  […]

  13. Gerry

    Ever heard the term “Native American”?

  14. Jim R

    It’s my understanding that Red Ab.’s are found in mostly
    depths of 10 to 50 ft- – – –
    Black and greens are closer to shore…..
    Is it possible, that they were able to collect in deeper water?

  15. karl kempton

    problems with article — these are chumash sites. chumash were on the islands and coast longer than these dates. concept of paleo-indians is a continuation of not listening to the chumash despite evidence.

    arlington springs burial was a young woman, dated 13,500 years ago. chumash.

    the archaeological report for diablo canyon nuclear power plant cemetery that was dug up before construction. now on the coast but oldest date showed 9500 years continuos occupation. ocean several miles west at that time. coastal sites now submerged. at bottom of the cemetery, obsidian from glass mountain east of mammoth of the sierra. means trade route over 200 miles long in place.

    nowhere in original report or its 25 anniversary republication and edition can you find a reference to the chumash. instead use of a material artifact to name a pecific archaeological made up period.

    1. kpgoog

      The Chumash history is largely unknown. Their language was distinct from any of the surrounding tribes at the time of European contact.. The tomol boat employs a construction technology of sewn planks only seen in the region of the Channel Islands, South America, and Polynesia. The shell fish hooks they used resemble those in found in Polynesia. Some of their words are similar to those used in Hawaii, suggesting a recent contact or influx at or after about A.D. 1200. What you refer to as Chumash culture is only a few hundred years old, distinctly different than the cultural remains referred to in the article.

  16. Thinkin Person

    oh boy! these articles are difficult to read. Is this some big surprise? San Francisco has sites 10,000 years old that have been ignored to justify claiming Ohlone are all gone.

    Also, please consider when speaking of ‘Midden,’ many of these Sites were BURIAL sites and WHO buries their ancestors in Trash! No one! (shared by an elder).

    Please, its 2014. Can you speak with any Chumash for this article?

    I don’t know if the larger archeological community understands how your articles and way of speaking come off to other people. We have so many positive collaborations, maybe learning how it feels to hear these silly lopsided reports will make a difference.

    Many native people won’t talk to you guys at all, its simply too painful to hear the ignorance spoken with an air of authority.

    1. Richard Wisecarver

      I am sorry but many societies use old trash dumps for burial sites, Dumps are used in prehistoric because the undisturbed soil, it is very difficult to excavate a grave. It is not a matter of disrespect, it has do with realty. Every society has its own particular way of dealing with the bodies of their dead. Tribal elders often have important insight into the past but frankly I have run into a few that were full of nonsense. Many modern archaeologist avoid speculation about the tribal identification of prehistoric sites with modern tribes. They simply allow the evidence to speak for itself. Unfortunately, this open collected to interpretation by everyone, sometime speculation takes us far afield. These sites, are very early and should expand our knowledge of the settling of the Americas. You hinted at Polynesian influence. Could be but not until 3 or 4 thousand years ago at the earliest.

  17. Jeff

    We are limited by trying to view civilizations of 10,000-20,000 years ago through the prism of our current world.

    Considering that 1) Most civilizations have located themselves near bodies of water like coastlines or rivers and 2) The level of the oceans 10,000-20,000 years ago was 200-300 feet lower would mean that the vast treasure trove of archeological evidence lies 200-300 feet underwater in locations of what would have been the coast line of the time.

    If science develops inexpensive undersea drones with decent sensors we may have to rewrite much of what we know about civilizations of North America and the world.

  18. […] Could be related to "paleo crescent blades" found on the southern California Islands. Here is a link. […]

  19. joan

    you could use the crescents for scooping out the abalone?

  20. William S Dean

    One of the problems which arises from such “theories” as the “sea-faring” immigrants is the isolation of inconvenient facts which are not considered. For example, it has been proven that the Pericú tribe of the tip of Baja California Sud The Pericú were one of the few aboriginal groups on the California coasts to possess watercraft other than tule balsas, making use of wooden rafts and double-bladed paddles. Also if you read the accounts written by early Spanish explorers and by-sea expeditions they state they sometimes easily traveled along the coast usually in sight of land.

  21. Normandie Kent

    The Chumash used redwood driftwood to construct their highly specialized Tomol Boats that took up to 6 months to build. Yes, it was redwood.

  22. jOE

    LATE TO THE PARTY, BUT… WHAT IF… THE MIGRATORY-FLOW WERE
    NOT’ NORTH TO SOUTH, BUT RATHER SOUTH TO NORTH? READING ABOUT THE CLOVIS CHILD & THE DNA COMPARISONS TO OTHER POPULATIONS… ONE HAS TO WONDER THAT MORE MID-TO SOUTHERN AMERICAN DNA WAS SHARED BY THIS APPROACH THAN BY THE FLOW SOUTHERNLY. I LEAVE THIS TO YOU GENTLEMEN OF GREATER UNDERSTANDING THAN I. HAPPY FLOW-HUNTING!

  23. ATheoK

    The crescent bear strong resemblances to several more modern tools.
    a) One is one of the long handled tools used for butchering whales and harvesting whale blubber. Known as a flensing tool.
    aa) http://image0-rubylane.s3.amazonaws.com/shops/eantiques/RL-EA001594.1L.jpg
    aa) http://image0-rubylane.s3.amazonaws.com/shops/eantiques/RL-EA001594.1L.jpg

    Possibly originally derived from the Inuit ulu:
    b) Inuit ulu knife. An all purpose tool as the Inuit use them, but particularly good for skinning game and harvesting meat.

    Your thoughts on a multi-utilitarian purpose are valid.

    Another purpose is that the looks efficient for scraping bones and harvesting marrow.

  24. Ted Kowalski

    “distinctive Channel Island barbed stone points”

    Concave toothed side, perhaps fish scalers?

    Convex side looks right for scraping the insides of clam and abalone shells.

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