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Irvine Co., Indians Divided by a Wall Carving

Development: The tiny image in a San Joaquin Hills cave is sacred to some, but homes are planned for the site.


The historical and religious significance of a tiny, ancient wall carving that may be bulldozed for 2,500 homes has prompted growing debate between local American Indian groups and the Irvine Co.

The carving is little more than a doodle, according to archeologists who have seen it--a wavy line about 4 inches long with a circle at one end. It was cut into the wall of a shallow cave by local Indians almost 2,000 years ago on Irvine Co. land near the Turtle Rock community.

Company officials and archeologists have invited local tribal representatives to view it and submit ideas for its fate. But they say there are far larger, more significant finds that will be preserved in the area.

Local Native American groups, however, say the site and others like it are sacred grounds that should be left intact.

"The Turtle Rock area is considered one of the more sacred areas, and I would imagine these sites could be tied to some of our major villages," said Dameon Shilo, chairman of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians.

The hollow with the carving is one of nine containing Indian artifacts that dot 1,600 acres of rugged land in Irvine at the foot of the San Joaquin Hills. Seven will be preserved on roughly 1,000 acres of open land between the San Joaquin Hills toll road and Shady Canyon Road.

The remaining two, which sit on opposite sides of an unnamed creek, are in the middle of an area where the Irvine Co. has approvals to build the homes.

One of the sites will be demolished. Numerous archeologists agree that the crushed shells and chipped stone inside tell little about the Native Americans who used it. The site has been documented, as required by law, and archeologists will monitor demolition in case other artifacts hidden in the soil are turned up. If so, any significant artifacts will be removed.

The other cave contains the wall carving that some consider a valuable archeological find.

While such cave drawings or carvings exist throughout Southern California, the debate over this one centers on whether every fragment can, or should, be preserved to maintain historic and cultural links.

The floor of the cave containing the small etching is thick with midden--a dark, greasy soil mixed with shells, plant material and chipped stone. Archeologists say the midden shows that tribes probably ate meals here, perhaps as long as 1,700 years ago. The chipped stone suggests that tribal members also fashioned their arrowheads in the rock shelter.

Archeologists say the carving, like other etchings found in caves around the county, holds clues to ancient civilizations that roamed the area--some dating back thousands of years before Jesus' time.

The language of the walls--the carvings and drawings--is unknown, and experts say they can only guess at the meaning. Some images could have served as navigational tools, and some could have religious or ceremonial connotations. But experts say information can be gleaned from them.

"We believe the site is important and still has a lot of information in it," said Pamela Maxwell, an archeologist with the Army Corps of Engineers who examined the cave. "It can tell us what was going on at that time. But ultimately, it's the Irvine Co.'s property, and we cannot legally demand that they save it."

Under the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, developers are required to study the significance of archeological sites. While preservation is encouraged, it isn't mandatory. The developer can build on the site, provided the artifacts and other important information are documented in some way.

But to members of the Juaneno and Gabrielino/Tongva tribes, whose ancestors inhabited the area, the value of the rock shelters goes beyond scientific worth. They are sacred and should be preserved--no matter how insignificant the artifacts may appear.

"This is part of our history; it is tied to our culture," Shilo said.

Documentation Isn't Enough, Indians Say

Paul Apodaca, a Chapman University professor and an expert in Native American studies, cautions against tampering with historic sites--no matter how small they might be.

"It's not acceptable to destroy the artifacts of history, even if they are documented on paper," said Apodaca, a Native American. "Later generations can always question whether that documentation is accurate or even true."

The Irvine Co. generally favors preservation but believes it can be taken to an extreme, said Steve Letterly, vice president of environmental permitting.

"At some point, these groups will have to decide what's important to preserve," said Steve Conkling, an archeologist hired by the Irvine Co. to study the cave.

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