Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/March 1896/The Ancient Islanders of California


By Prof. C. F. HOLDER.

DURING the past summer several attempts were made to thoroughly investigate the shell heaps, kitchen middens, and graves of the islands of Santa Catalina and San Clemente, off the coast of southern California. One of these parties, organized by Mr. J. Neale Plumb, of New York, in the short time at their command made some interesting finds.

The two islands are respectively twenty-two and forty miles off shore, each about twenty-two miles in length. Santa Catalina is

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Fig. 1.—Gigantic Natural Sandpit at San Clemente Island.

a mountain range, with peaks twenty-five hundred or three thousand feet in height, with a climate that makes it a most desirable spot the year round, as the summer is delightful and in winter the island is a garden in the sea. San Clemente rises to a height of one thousand or twelve hundred feet at places, but is flat on top, as though swept by the winds.

Both islands were inhabited when discovered by Cabrillo in 1542, and undoubtedly for ages supported a large and vigorous population of savage seafarers who were skilled in all the rude arts of the fisherman and the sea.

How long these islands have been occupied, and who were the original settlers, are questions difficult to answer; but on Santa

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Fig. 2.—Skeleton found at San Clemente Island, California.

Catalina the writer has identified a number of residence sites, shell mounds, caves, and tumuli, all of which show evidence of ancient occupation.

On the island of San Clemente we began work on the north end, at what is known as the Isthmus. Here for several hundred acres the sand has covered the soil and is gradually flowing up over the island, driven by the wind. For some reason this appears to have been a favorite location for the aborigines, as in every direction traces of previous occupation were found; but as the sand has been blowing for centuries, a greater portion of the material has been covered by it. The evidence was in the shape of shell mounds—piles of abalones, brought from the ocean, half a mile distant; heaps of the bones of fishes, seals, and various animals, among which were found stone implements, well-molded scraping stones, grinders and broken mortars.

A day was spent in digging in these sand dunes with poor success, but the following morning, on the west shore of the island, another sand stretch was discovered which had evidently been occupied for years. In one place we found human bones uncovered by the sand, in such numbers that the impression was given that here was an old battlefield where bodies had been left as they fell. As far as the eye could see down the coast the sand dunes extended, and everywhere were the telltale fragments of shell and. abalone.

In the space of the present article it is impossible to more than call attention to a few of the finds made, illustrating the everyday history of these unknown people. The sand in places was littered with fragments of stone vessels which had been broken probably by some vandal. Some of these jars weighed nearly twenty pounds, others more, and were of all sizes, from small vessels, intended as paint or color jars, to vessels which would hold several quarts of water. Here were discoidal stones exactly like those taken from the kitchen middens of Europe, flint arrow and spear heads, beads of shell and bone, scrapers and awls of bone, and rings and other ornaments cut from the pearly abalone.

The most interesting find was made in the center of the dune, where, in sinking a trench, a skeleton was found in so peculiar a

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Fig. 8.—Musical Instruments, Double and Single, Inlaid with Pearl taken from Sands of San Clemente, by C. F. Holder, August, 1895.

position that the entire party gathered about and aided in the excavation. It was lying on its face, the head to the east, the arms raised over the head as though the man had fallen on his knees, or had been buried in a bent position. The bones were of a deep tan color, and about them was not the slightest vestige of clothing. The sand was carefully worked out, and after an hour's labor the skeleton was seen in perfect relief against it. Then began the detachment of the bones, each one being taken out separately and carefully laid aside to dry; in this way the perfect skeleton was secured.

Of many skeletons discovered by the writer on these islands, this was the first with which some of the possessions of the native had not been buried; as a rule, mortars and pestles, beads, weapons, and other property of the deceased were buried with him.

When the skeleton was almost exposed, an interesting find was made about five feet behind it. When first found it was supposed to be another skeleton, but careful digging with a knife in the soft sand soon resulted in the uncovering of three musical instruments, or flutes, showing that evidently the musician of the tribe had been discovered. They were the leg bones of the deer, found on the mainland forty miles away, and were evidently highly treasured by the owner, as they were ornamented PSM V48 D733 Pearl ornaments.jpgFig. 4.—Pearl Ornaments. with pearly iridescent plates cut from the haliotis. The flutes, which are now in Mr. Plumb's collection at Islip, Long Island, were about eight inches in length, perforated with four or five finger holes, while the largest end was covered with asphaltum, into which was set the square or oblong piece of pearl, evidently selected for its beauty and luster.

These quaint instruments had been placed at the feet of the body evidently, as they were just on a level with it. It is not impossible that some stone vessels had been buried over the skeleton, as numbers of broken fragments were found here. Near by a large shell was discovered at the surface filled with shell beads, and a short distance away a skeleton partly burned, the bones mixed up among charred wood, fish bones, etc. Beneath it were several discoidal stones, and a curious object resembling a bell-clapper, probably a polishing implement of some kind.

The entire region was undoubtedly either a vast burying ground or had been a village site covered in the intervening years by the drifting sand that was ever creeping up the canons.

As to the age of these remains, no estimate could be made, but everything pointed to an early period in the history of the island. PSM V48 D733 Stone jar from the sand beds.jpgFig. 5.—Stone Jar from the Sand Beds. San Clemente is subjected to winds, has a poor water supply, and does not present the attractive features found at Santa Catalina, now a famous watering place. The latter island evidently had a larger population. During the past ten years the writer has located at least twenty ancient town sites or camps on Santa Catalina, and found stone implements on many of them, ranging from mortars and pestles to discoidal stones, and various objects of stone, wood, shell, and bone. One location is of especial interest, being an ancient olla manufactory, where the natives from time immemorial made soapstone vessels and objects of various kinds. Here are the old olla marks, showing where the mortars had been broken off; and where the site was originally located the remains of the vessels were found.

These two islands are virtual archaeological treasure houses which, when thoroughly examined, will undoubtedly produce many interesting finds.