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Channel Island Woman's Bones May Rewrite History

April 11, 1999|GARY POLAKOVIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a discovery that sheds new light on the human conquest of the New World, a team of scientists says that bones from an ancient woman who lived on the Channel Islands off Ventura County could be the oldest human remains ever found in North America.

The extraordinary discovery provides important clues to a critical yet mysterious period in human history--the end of the last major ice age--when nomadic people began populating the Americas but left little evidence about who they were or where they came from.

The woman's bones, subjected to recent reexamination after spending the better part of four decades in storage, join a growing body of ancient skeletal remains that challenges traditional theories that the first visitors came here from northern Asia by way of a land bridge to Alaska. The new evidence suggests that the first settlers could have been Polynesians or southern Asians who arrived by boat. Some of the recent remains have features more typical of Europeans, scientists say.

"Bottom line is she may be the earliest inhabitant of North America we have discovered. It's a find of national significance," said John R. Johnson, curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, part of the team involved in the research.

The skeletal remains consist of two thigh bones scooped from a gully at Arlington Canyon on Santa Rosa Island 40 years ago. They were tested in the 1960s and kept in their original soil before being encased in plaster and stored in the basement of the Santa Barbara museum. Researchers at the museum and Channel Islands National Park recently decided to subject the bones to sophisticated DNA and radiocarbon testing methods that were not available when the bones were discovered.

The tests were performed by Stafford Research Laboratories in Boulder, Colo., one of the nation's preeminent carbon dating labs. The results showed that the bones are probably 13,000 years old, 1,400 years older than previously thought. That would make the so-called Arlington Springs woman slightly older than the oldest known human skeletons in North America, which came from Montana, Idaho and Texas, scientists say.

Other members of the research team included scientists from the University of California, Lawrence Livermore National Radiocarbon Laboratory, and the National Park Service. Results of the investigation have not yet been submitted to peers for critical review and have not been published in scientific journals. But a paper describing the experiment presented March 30 at the fifth California Islands Symposium at the Santa Barbara museum has fueled excitement among leading scholars in the field.

Two sets of tests were performed on the bones and have produced differing estimates of their age. The first set was performed by the Stafford lab and R. Ervin Taylor, chairman of the anthropology department at UC Riverside, another respected expert in the carbon dating of skeletons. Those tests produced an age of 11,000 years. Thomas W. Stafford, a research geochemist who runs the Stafford lab, performed a second set of tests on another piece of leg bone that was in better condition. That test isolated a protein common to bones and analyzed the remaining amino acids, which indicated an age of about 13,000 years. Additional tests on a lump of charcoal and a mouse jawbone, found beside the leg bones in the same stratum of soil, confirmed that age, Stafford said.

Taylor said he hopes to double-check the older date by testing the same portion of femur that Stafford used. But he vouched for the other man's expertise. "He has a very good track record, he has scientific credibility and he does a lot of work on bones from the New World. You take his data seriously," Taylor said.

Either way, the bones from Santa Rosa Island join an exclusive group of skeletons from the very earliest people to arrive in the Western Hemisphere. In those days, the colonizers would have seen continent-sized glaciers and woolly mammoths. The sea level was 360 feet lower than it is today. The northern Channel Islands near Ventura and Santa Barbara counties were joined in a contiguous land mass that scientists refer to as Santa Rosae.

The bones were found in a canyon on the island that ancient peoples have inhabited on and off for thousands of years. A short distance from the site is Daisy Cave on San Miguel Island, where a handful of flints, stone chips and charcoal--some nearly as old as the woman's bones--have been found. It is possible she may have lived there and walked across a canyon, now underwater, to the current Santa Rosa Island where she died, said Don Morris, archeologist for Channel Islands National Park.

"It's pretty incredible. Arlington woman presses right back into this time of the early migration of the New World. She could be the oldest skeleton in North America," Stafford said.

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