Chumash Sites in ‘Immediate Danger,’ Scientists Say

UCSB archeologist Kristina Gill collects samples from sites that are in danger of being impacted by El Niño events.

Archeologists are not usually in a hurry — they have all the time in the world to dig up bones and artifacts that will not be going anywhere. That is why you do not usually expect to see “archeology” and “emergency” in the same sentence. As it turns out, there is a situation in the Channel Islands that is going to cause some archeologists to move much more quickly.

Located just 30 miles offshore from Malibu are some of the oldest and most important archeological sites for human habitation in North America. Located on Santa Cruz Island — the largest Channel Island, visible from Malibu on a clear day — archeologists have declared eight important sites “code red,” or in danger of being lost forever due to global sea levels rising, as well as higher local sea levels driven by El Niño climate patterns that cause flooding and king tides.

According to The Nature Conservancy, which manages 76 percent of the island (the National Parks Service [NPS] manages the rest), ancestors of the Chumash people lived on the Channel Islands for more than 10,000 years, subsisting mainly on a “rich marine environment” of shellfish, fish, waterfowl and even pinnipeds. The archaeological sites they left behind provide “one of the best examples of a complex hunter-gatherer-fisher society in the world.”

Santa Cruz Island was once home to about 1,200 Chumash in 11 villages, according to the NPS. They used fishing nets, went to sea in long canoes made of redwood driftwood (the oldest watercraft found in North America) and prepared dinners on stone griddles. Scientists have also found arrowheads, stone tools, rope and fabric.

“Most people lived right along the coast, and the sites they left behind — the remains of their villages, campsites and other places where they lived — left valuable information that will help us understand the ecology and environmental history of the Channel Islands and other places around the world,” Torben Rick, director/curator of North American Archeology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, said.

Because the island was privately owned for many years, scientists did not have access to it until The Nature Conservancy bought it in 1978. Through archeological digs since then, findings include building foundations, cutting tools, shell beads used as currency, and mounds of leftover bones and shells.  

Unfortunately, around 2010, when some of the first big studies about climate change and sea level rise came out, the island’s archeologists began realizing that time was running out to study or document some Chumash sites.

In 2014, research collaborators from the Smithsonian Institution, University of Oregon, The Nature Conservancy, Chumash tribal leaders, and University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) surveyed the 96 square-mile island to inventory what was there. The result was the first complete description of each archaeological site and what it probably contains, and an estimate of its vulnerability to sea level rise and storm erosion based on its location and topography. 

Out of dozens of sites surveyed, eight were determined to be “code red” — those that have many important artifacts and those that are in imminent danger of being flooded or submerged. At the top of the list to be saved was a cave where scientists went in and quickly dug out as many relics from under the sand as they could. 

“Finding these sites and the definitive evidence that people were occupying the landscape at the end of the last ice age is crucial,” Rick said. The 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.

The rush is still on to collect data from as many of the endangered sites as possible before they’re lost. Kristina Gill, an archeologist with UCSB, said the team is continuing to collect samples “from several sites that are in immediate danger of being impacted by El Niño events … This type of salvage work typically involves radiocarbon dating and/or small-scale excavation.” 

The testing can tell them if and when sites were occupied, how people lived on the islands,and the types of activities that occurred there, including what they ate and how they adapted to environmental changes over the last 10,000 or more years. 

“Studying how the environment changed throughout the Holocene and how people adapted to these changes in the past could have important implications for what we might face in the near future,” Gill said; also noting that, “In certain areas, several sites have already been completely lost since their initial recording in the 1980s and 1990s.”