Workers renovating the historic Vail & Vickers ranch house on Santa Rosa Island, off the coast of Southern California, uncovered ancient spear points and fishhooks that appear to date from 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Santa Rosa Island, a part of the Channel Islands, is 40 miles by water from the town of Ventura on the California coast. For thousands of years the home of the Chumash Nation, the island has long been known for its ancient archaeological sites.
The house over which the site was found was built in 1855 by Alpheus Thompson and John C. Jones. They had come into possession of the island by marrying the daughters of Jose Antonio and Carlos Barrelo Carrillo, two brothers who were granted the island by the Mexican government. It subsequently passed into hands of various ranchers until the island was acquired by the prominent cattle ranching concern, Vail & Vickers in 1902. In 1986, the National Park Service purchased the island and in 1998 shut down the remaining cattle operations. The house was being converted into a hotel when the workers tunneling in the basement discovered the artifacts.
In order to properly excavate the site, the house had to be lifted up off the ground, and they quickly discovered distinctive stone spearheads known as a “Channel Island barbed point,” and a crescent fishhook, indicating the site was ancient. Jon Erlandson, professor of Anthropology at the University of Oregon and director of the Oregon State Museum of Anthropology, stated, “Usually, when we find the two of them together, the site is at least 10,000 years old and could be 12,000 years old or older.”
Although the ancient archaeological site has not yet been dated, Erlandson notes that, “The northern Channel Islands have one of the largest and most significant clusters of early coastal sites in the Americas with more than 100 sites over 7,500 years old.” In 1959 ancient bones were discovered from a gully in Arlington Canyon on Santa Rosa Island. Dubbed “Arlington Springs Man,” the bones were dated to be more than 13,000 years old, making them the oldest human remains found in North America. Even though the sea level then was lower than that of today, and the Channel Islands were connected to form one large island, it was still far enough offshore to have required sophisticated maritime technology to reach. The find caused a major stir, leading to speculation that the earliest Indians arrived by boat, and not by walking across a land bridge.
The island’s ancient archaeological sites originally gave credence to the claim that the first Americans sailed down the Pacific Coast from Asia, but later discoveries of more ancient archaeological sites on the coast of South America, including the recently dated Huaca Prieta site in coastal Peru, which is 2,000 years older than the oldest Santa Rosa site, tend to refute this idea.
Heralding new cooperative relationships between Indians and scientists, Chumash elders are involved in the excavation at Santa Rosa alongside the National Park Service archaeologists. Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, a Chumash elder, said, “This is part of our cultural heritage here,” and the excavation provides the opportunity for “our children’s children’s children to see, appreciate, admire and know how brilliant our people are.”
The new spirit of openness is refreshing for archaeology, a field that was dogmatically closed to all outside influences just a few years ago. “We’ve learned a lot in the last 10 or 20 years,” Erlandson stated, adding that, “we still have a tremendous amount to learn.”