Pleistocene Sloth Poop

I just looked at the link to the Arizona Daily Star that Steve had in his last post that had this great picture of Dr. Paul Martin holding a Pleistocene Ground Sloth – “coprolite” is the proper term – and thought it deserved a post of its own. Such a priceless picture! This is real science! This is a man who has his “stuff” together!Seeing it also reminded me of my days in graduate school. A colleague that I shared lab and office space with was doing studies of human coprolites from dry shelters in the Southwest for his master’s thesis (theses on feces?). As found in the rock shelters the coprolites were firm and dry, like the one Dr. Martin is holding. For my friend to do his research to see what the prehistoric people were eating, what parasites they had, etc., he had to rehydrate them. You can imagine the smell. For a number of weeks there we had very few visitors. Actually, I found it imperative to do a lot of library research during that period.

Life is Dangerous – Deal With It

The title Biting Back: just because great white sharks are protected doesn’t mean we should be on their menu of this LA Times op-ed almost says it all. It is symptomatic of the age we live in that an increasing proportion of our population believes that nature belongs in nature movies and we as individuals should never have to deal with its messy consequences. As I commented to Steve and Matt when I forwarded copies to them – it’s as though we have a RIGHT to always be at the top of the food chain! I was appalled that the author of this piece, presumably a savvy “nature writer” published in Outside and Environmental History, could have taken this tone.

Read the article to get the facts that undermine its emotional argument: there have been 11 fatal shark attacks in California in the last 55 years. That’s one every five years. Shall we compare those statistics with annual deaths due to car accidents, swimming pool drownings, home accidents and other risks we accept blithely each day? You know the answer and I’m not going through the exercise. Yet the author still feels entitled to say, ” The urban beaches of Southern California are not the same as an oceanic ‘wilderness’ like the Farallon Islands. They are our backyard. We should not have to forfeit our right to security the minute we step off dry sand — especially because the scientific case for the great white shark’s immediate endangerment becomes less convincing with each new sighting.”

This “right to security” in nature? Where does it come from?

The article gives the story of the poor woman killed by a shark while swimming off Avila Beach in 2003. The lady was in the habit of putting on a black wetsuit and fins and swimming in the middle of a group of seals each morning. How a predator was to discern her from its normal food supply is beyond me. It’s the moral equivalent of you or I grabbing a long steel rod and running to the top of the nearest tall hill in the middle of a thunderstorm. Not smart.

Sorry, but we all take risks as long as we’re breathing. Know your environment, know what its risks are, accept them and do what you can to minimize them, as intelligent people do.

Pygmy Mammoths

A little known but interesting aspect of Pleistocene megafauna was the species of pygmy mammoth (Mammuthus exilis) that inhabited the Northern Channel Islands of the California Coast. During the late Pleistocene when sea level was much lower than it is now, the four present northern islands (San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa) were all part of a single large island geologists now call Santarosae. It is thought that Columbian mammoths (Mammuthus columbi) made their way to Santarosae about 20,000 years ago likely swimming (modern elephants are good swimmers!) the 5 miles or so from the mainland.

As sea level rose the mammoths were cut off from the mainland and the evolutionary response to decreasing food supplies and habitat was to select for smaller animals. The resulting pygmy species was about the size of a horse. You can see their size from the photo above, taken in an excavation conducted by Dr. Larry Agenbroad (see Steve’s post below) for the National Park Service on Santa Rosa Island in the mid 1990s. This specimen was an adult male, with an estimated age in the 50s. He was so old he had bone spurs from arthritis on his feet. He was radiocarbon dated to about 12,800 years ago.

How the pygmy mammoths became extinct and exactly when is not yet firmly established. There is a theory that humans killed them off, as is surmised for the other North American mammoths and mastodons. Current research by Dr. John Johnson of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History at Arlington Springs on Santa Rosa Island has firmly established a human occupation out there as early as 13,000 years ago so it is likely their occupation of the islands overlapped. The SBMNH has documented 93 mammoth fossil locations on the islands so future work should help us answer that question.

Photo is courtesy of National Park Service – Channel Islands National Park

Very Old Rock Art Blogging

In light of Steve’s post on Pleistocene Park and his suggestion that it start in Utah, I wanted to share this petroglyph of a mammoth from….Utah. This is the only North American rock art that I am familiar with that depicts extinct megafauna. The rock face where this image lies is in the Moab area.

I wish I had taken this picture myself, but I borrowed it from Ian Lange’s Ice Age Mammals of North America a well-illustrated and informative book for the general reader.

Rock Art Blogging

Last May my wife Connie and I were lucky enough to take part in a tour of archaeological sites at Vandenberg Air Force Base here in Santa Barbara County, California. The tour was set up by Santa Barbara County Archaeological Society and guided by Larry Spanne, Chief of Cultural Resources at VAFB and I want to thank them both for the opportunity.
One site visited was the Honda Ridge Rock Art Site (CA-SBA-550) an exposed cliff face covered in pictographs painted in red pigment by the prehistoric Chumash who lived in the area for thousands of years.

The image above is that of a raven’s head, one of hundreds of figures painted on this panel. You can see the circle around his eye and his beak pointing to the right side. Standing under the panel looking south you can see Point Conception. It figured greatly in Chumash mythology and historically there was a shrine there named Humqaq’. This translates from Chumash as “The Raven Comes.”
This second shot shows a general view of what the panel at Honda Ridge looks like, a south-facing, slick rock face covered with red painted images, more of which we will share with you in the future. Yours truly is the earnest photographer with his hat turned backwards.

This last shot is a study in contrasts – from the stone age to the space age – and explains why the resources at Honda Ridge have been protected from harm. In this view from the north side of Honda Ridge, you can see a large structure in the middle distance which is the gantry for one of the space launch complexes at VAFB. Military and commerical satellites are launched into polar orbits from these facilities. The fact that the VAFB area has restricted access has kept looters away and saved these magnificant cultural and natural resources for the future.

Prehistoric Passenger Pigeons – A Mystery

Over the weekend I picked up a copy of 1491 by Charles Mann. This is a fascinating book for those interested in New World archaeology and natural history. Its basic message is that the environment encountered by Europeans at initial contact was not an edenic natural paradise but was an anthropogenic construct. In other words, the environment was “manufactured” by the Native Americans to suit their needs using a wide variety of practices. This is not a new concept, but Mann does us all a service by collecting information from a wide variety of individual research projects by archaeologists and biologists into an accessible compendium. Portions of this book first appeared in the Atlantic in 2002, an article many of us read and enjoyed. This book is dense with information and speculation and I’m sure will provide fodder for future posts by Steve and me.

One interesting topic addressed in 1491 is the mystery of the passenger pigeon. The natural history of the passenger pigeon is a particular interest of Steve’s (page down to A Feathered Tempest) and discussion on this topic first put us in communication. Steve’s treatment gives detailed data, but the condensed version is that in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries in eastern North America, passenger pigeons flew in flocks of tens of millions, darkening the sun, crushing tree limbs, and wreaking havoc in the environment wherever they ventured. According to one expert estimate, in the first quarter of the Nineteenth century, one out of every four birds alive on this continent was a passenger pigeon.

The sad but well-known story is that these birds were relatively quickly hunted to extinction. The last passenger pigeon died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

Projecting these tremendous passenger pigeon populations backward into prehistory, one would assume that they would have provided a ready food source for Native Americans in their range – whereupon comes our mystery.

I attended a presentation at the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting last spring by Dr. Ed Jackson of U. of Southern Mississippi on passenger pigeon remains in prehistoric archeological sites in the eastern US. Jackson’s conclusion was that there were actually quite few such remains, a surprising development. In this case it is not a matter of preservation, as these sites had plenty of other bird bones.

In 1491, Mann presents the same conclusions with data from different researchers who used a smaller sample size than Jackson. Mann believes that the Indians would have eaten pigeons if they were available in any quantity, and concludes that their populations in this period were small or more would be seen in archaeological deposits. Mann theorizes that as humans, deer, passenger pigeons, and other animals were all competitive consumers of mast (acorns & nuts) from eastern forests, when human populations fell due to introduced European diseases, the equation of mast consumers fell out of balance and pigeon populations boomed. Therefore, massive passenger pigeon flocks are a post-European settlement phenomenon.

I have seen enough examples in the archaeological record where plentiful food resources were completely ignored by prehistoric Indians (subject of a future post) to immediately leap to the conclusion that prehistoric pigeon populations were small. But it is a genuine mystery and a fascinating subject for future discussion and research.

Prehistoric Contact Between Polynesia and California?

I want to thank Steve for extending the invitation to guest-blog here. I have been a great fan of his since reading Querencia in 1994. I make my living as a professional archaeologist and I was delighted to find we have common interests in that field upon discovering this blog last month. Our resulting fun and stimulating exchanges of information led to my guest-blogging on archaeology and related subjects. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on that I’d like to share with you.

One of the most controversial new theories in North American archaeolgy in recent years was proposed this spring by archaeologist Terry Jones (Cal Poly – SLO) and linguist Kathryn Klar (UC – Berkeley). They believe that a method of canoe hull construction unique in North America to two prehistoric California Indian groups (Chumash and Gabrieleno) was not invented by them. This “sewn-plank” technology was also common in prehistoric Polynesia. Jones and Klar marshal evidence to support the proposition that Polynesians voyaged to California in the AD 500 – 700 time period and taught the concept to California Indians. This theory was first presented professionally in a symposium I attended at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology last spring. A reasonable summary of their theory is presented here .

This is an intriguing though controversial theory with many arguments on both sides. A summary of some (by no means all!) of these arguments that have occurred to me and other professionals follows.

Linguistics – I am not a linguist and cannot evaluate Klar’s analysis, but it is a fact that the words in Chumash and Gabrieleno for planked canoe do not have their origins in those languages and are borrowed words from somewhere.

Polynesian Capability – It is an established fact that prehistoric Polynesians sailed to the New World and back based on the distribution of the sweet potato. They were fully capable of reaching North America.

Chronology – The earliest firm evidence of a North American planked canoe is a wood fragment from San Miguel Is. in the Santa Barbara Channel, radiocarbon dated to AD 625 – 700 (see Lynn Gamble’s excellent 2002 American Antiquity article). This date correlates well with the Polynesian occupation of Hawaii, the only reasonable origin point of such a voyage.

Linguistics – The Polynesian source words that Klar posits as the origins of the Native American words translate as “useful tree” or “thing made of wood”, not exact descriptions of a canoe. A “common sense” question occurring to me and others is why wasn’t the source word the nearly universal Polynesian word for planked canoe – waka?

Technology Transfer – A Chumash seeing a Polynesian sailing canoe for the first time would be confronted with three pieces of new technology: sail, outrigger, and sewn plank hull. A “common sense” question would be why would he adopt the least obvious and most difficult to perform of the three, hull construction, and ignore the two most advantageous and easiest to implement, the sail and outrigger. It makes me scratch my head. I asked Jones this question and his answer was that during the Protohistoric period (AD 1542 – 1769) the Chumash saw numerous examples of Spanish ships with sails and never tried sails then either. I dunno.

Chronology – ANY direct evidence of planked canoe construction in California earlier than the current AD 600 – 700 dates would disprove the theory. This would predate the Polynesian settlement of Hawaii, a precondition for a North American voyage. The earliest planked canoe date cited above is subject to revision by new evidence. Gamble’s 2002 article also cites a date from a “possible” plank fragment as early as ca. 300 BC. A 2000 MA thesis written by Suzan Rose (a former work colleague) at UNLV details indirect evidence of planked canoe construction at site CA-SBA-52, located about a mile from where I sit in Goleta, CA. Rose documents work areas in the site containing scatters of boring tools with distinctive wear patterns, asphaltum applicators, and other tools that Gamble’s later article interpretes as typical of canoe construction workshops. Only at CA-SBA-52 these areas are securely radiocarbon dated to ca. 2000 BC. So the door is still open for this line of inquiry.

Klar and Jones deserve credit for originating this provocative theory challenging many assumptions about California prehistory. Science doesn’t progress without people pushing at established paradigms.

Their peer-reviewed article on the theory will appear in the next issue of the flagship journal American Antiquity. I’m sure that the “fur will fly” in American Antiquity‘s Comments section in the coming months and I will report to you on what results!