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PAST LIVES | So SoCal

No Stone Unturned

July 28, 1996|Michael R. Forrest

Walk along one of the streams feeding the Santa Ana River, glance down at your feet sinking into the water and leaves and, if you're lucky, you may find small stones that look like mechanical cogs. Or Tonka toy tractor wheels. Or mini-mudstone doughnuts. Or tiny lava Bundt cakes. Or sandstone sun and star cookies. Strange and beautiful, these rocks are hundreds, possibly thousands of years old, and the only place in the world where they're found is the Santa Ana River drainage basin.

"No one really knows what they are," says Paul Apodaca, curator of Native American art at the Bower Museum in Santa Ana. Apodaca thinks they were made by the Tongva Indians, the earliest residents of the Los Angeles Basin. Along with other anthropologists, he has been trying to find a definitive clue that might explain what the stones were used for, but so far every explanation Apodaca and his colleagues have theorized has been thrown out the window.

The stones have no wear patterns, so they weren't part of a machine. They have no rope grooves, so they weren't used to weigh down fishing nets. They have no plant remains mashed into their pores, so they weren't used to grind food. They don't have any nicks or marks, so they weren't pieces in some kind of game. And if the stones were traded or used as currency, presumably they would be found over a much larger area. So what are they?

One theory is that the stones, some of which look like fish vertebrae, may be representations of sea life that were placed in streams as offerings to ancient gods. Apodaca speculates that the varying number of ridges might be numerical representations of everything from mountains and the Milky Way to the lunar cycle and the months of pregnancy. But whatever the stones were, they had value, for broken cogs were repaired with a prehistoric tar made of pine pitch. They also took weeks, perhaps months to carve, although the tools, let alone anything that might directly link them to the Tongvas, have yet to be found.

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