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Old Bones of Contention

April 25, 1999|STEVE CHAWKINS | Steve Chawkins is a Times staff writer

In the Battle of the Bones, we are now the team to beat.

Buhl, Idaho, (home of "Buhl Woman") can go to the showers, hanging its head. Browns Valley, Minn., (home of "Browns Valley Man") might just as well start over. Such spots can't touch our own Channel Islands National Park--the home of "Arlington Springs Woman," the newly proclaimed contender to the title of oldest American.

If age is a state of mind, Arlington Springs Woman must have some headache.

Forty years ago, scientists found her bones--two thigh bones, to be exact--on Santa Rosa Island. At the time, they thought she didn't look a day over 11,600. But recently, less flattering archeologists with more sophisticated instruments pegged her at 13,000 years old.

This makes Arlington Springs Woman several millenniums older than her nearest competitor, as well as qualifying her for discount movie tickets and the twilight specials at selected restaurants.

The island discovery surprised scientists on several scores. For one, it raised the possibility that early Americans arrived in the New World by boat from Polynesia instead of migrating via a land bridge from Asia to Alaska. Secondly, a fossilized mouse was found near the bones of Arlington Springs Woman, suggesting that Walt Disney or one of his ancestors has already optioned her story.

Needless to say, being the oldest American is a terrific honor for Arlington Springs Woman. However, it's an honor without profits in her own land.

It's been weeks since the announcement of Arlington Springs Woman's distinction, and not a single tourism group has stepped up to the plate with a festival, a parade, a freeway sign, a proclamation, even a miserable plaque: "Thirteen thousand years ago, Arlington Springs Woman might have paddled from Santa Rosa Island to this lovely coastal spot in search of mussels, acorns, corn dogs and other primitive sustenance."

Maybe it's hard to crow over old leg bones.

Or maybe it's just that the name "Arlington Springs Woman" is not one that trips gladly off the tongue.

Hurricanes and the cuter mammals are graced with human names--but not very, very old humans. If you get to be 10,000 or so, the dignity of a name is long past. When your sorry bones are finally found, you're saddled with the name of the tar pit, cave or swamp where you shuffled off the mortal coil. That's why it's Clovis Man, Kennewick Man, Cro-Magnon Man--and never Manny, Moe or Jack.

Although it sounds like the kind of new subdivision that's far from a spring or anyplace called Arlington, Arlington Springs is a muddy trickle in a canyon on Santa Rosa Island. Hence, the faceless cipher, the all-but-nameless Arlington Springs Woman.

If that doesn't send a sad shiver through you--I'm talking about you, Midtown Ventura Man and you, Conejo Grade Woman--then I don't know what will.

Is it too late to give the oldest American a real American name? I'm afraid so. There's just something so not right about calling a fossil Tiffany.

Arlington Springs Woman, we hardly knew ye! Did you get seasick all the time and hate boats, despite your purported maritime background?

Did you prefer the taste of barbecued Pygmy mammoth to the creepy ooze of raw mussels?

Did you twine brilliant yellow coreopsis in your hair, just because you felt like it?

Did you secretly pray to the wind, the rocks, the clouds--while everyone around you was praying to the waves, the trees, the dolphins?

Did you have children and did you tell them that they would really amount to something someday if they could only catch enough lobsters? Do your children's children's children's descendants walk among us?

Of course, we know none of that. All we know is that, for her 15 minutes of fame, Arlington Springs Woman waited 13,000 years.


Steve Chawkins is a Times staff writer. His e-mail address is

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