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California and the West

Trail of Shells May Lead to Indians' Past

Archeology: Discoveries of the small beads from Orange County to Oregon could show that tribes of thousands of years ago were more complex than once thought.


They were the puka shells of California's prehistoric coastal Indians, tiny beads made by the thousands from the rather plain hull of a common sea snail.

Before being strung--probably around everything from necklines to baskets--the pieces of Olivella biplicata were perforated in one of two ways: either by a simple drill or a small punch.

All of them, that is, except for a handful that exhibit a minuscule manufacturing quirk and are becoming key pieces of a puzzle scientists believe could illuminate the murky evolution of civilization and languages among Southern California's prehistoric coastal Indians.

The 225 known Olivella Grooved Rectangle beads have been unearthed in clusters from the southern Channel Islands to Ventura Boulevard in Encino to south-central Oregon--suggesting that tribal trading was more extensive and earlier than many scientists previously suspected.

With their extensive distribution, the 5,000-year-old decorative beads underscore the relatively recent understanding that local tribes were among the more complex in North America, rather than simple "digger Indians," as the hunter-gatherers were derisively labeled just a few decades ago.

The small beads "are potentially going to revolutionize what we know about the [prehistoric] Southern California area," said University of Oregon professor Jon Erlandson, momentarily abandoning the cautious language of those who study prehistory. An expert on California coastal archeology, Erlandson said the beads, along with other recent evidence, are "suggesting to me that these people were ideologically, technologically and culturally complex, 5,000 years ago."

The tiny beads and other emerging evidence also suggest that neither the region nor its earliest humans were as isolated as long believed.

"What is starting to emerge is that California was not an island," said Mark Raab, director of the Center for Public Archeology at Cal State Northridge.

The beads may have political implications as well, say scientists such as anthropologist John Johnson of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, as local Native Americans attempt to establish their histories, achieve official tribal recognition from the federal government and win the respect they say they have never enjoyed.

The handful of researchers investigating the beads also think they might shed light on the different languages spoken by Southern California's two main tribes, the Tongva and the Chumash. When Europeans first arrived, the Tongva primarily inhabited what are now Orange and Los Angeles counties, with the Chumash living to the north and south along the coast.

The beads made their way from the southern Channel Islands to Orange County, Encino, western Nevada and Ft. Rock Valley, Ore.--all places where the inhabitants spoke languages from the Uto-Aztecan family, as did the Tongva. But, with the exception of a single bead found near Santa Barbara, there is no evidence of them in the territory of the Chumash, whose linguistic family is disputed and whose final speaker died in the 1960s.

If the beads were indeed being traded along an Uto-Aztecan frontier, that would also dispute a theory that the Chumash were the sole occupants of the Southern California coast until just 1,000 or 2,000 years ago when, it was believed, the Uto-Aztecan speakers first made their way from the Great Basin to the Los Angeles Basin.

So Southern California's ancient residents may not have been as parochial as some had thought, if the beads' distribution is being interpreted accurately.

"If materials can move over long distances, then so can icons, beliefs, religions, concepts--which would make for a much more dynamic social order," said Raab, the coauthor of a 1993 paper that first triggered interest in the beads.

"California archeology and anthropology has tended to think of itself only in terms of itself."

The modern saga of the Olivella Grooved Rectangle began in 1929, when an archeologist named William C. Orchard unearthed 16 of the beads at a place called Lovelock Cave in northwestern Nevada. Others were found in that area of the Great Basin in ensuing years, in caves and rock shelters along the shores of ancient marshes.

But the "detective story," as Raab puts it, that has begun to play out around the tiny beads did not commence until 1991.

That was the year Raab and his assistant, William Howard, excavated a site on Catalina Island called Little Harbor and returned to Cal State Northridge's Center for Public Archeology with a host of artifacts to clean, sort and study.

"We got back to the lab and washed them, and I'm going through all the beads and found one I'd never seen before," said Howard, who took up archeology after 27 years in the Navy. "Neither had Mark."

Unlike the majority of Olivella beads, these had been perforated by someone who scratched or sawed at the curved shell until a hole appeared in its center, rather than punching or drilling an opening.

Said Raab: "Right then and there, our curiosity got going."

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