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Prehistoric Indian Carving Imperiled by Housing Project

Development: Irvine Co. promises to preserve more significant sites, but local tribal leaders say the cave with the tiny artifact is sacred ground.


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

The carving looks like 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 a Native American almost 2,000 years ago on what is now Irvine Co. land near the Turtle Rock community in Irvine.

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 all 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 rugged acres in Irvine at the foot of the San Joaquin Hills. Seven will be preserved on about 1,000 open acres bordered roughly by the San Joaquin Hills toll road, Shady Canyon Road and Bonita Canyon Drive.

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

One of the sites is definitely destined for demolition. 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 deeper 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.

Although 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 there, perhaps as long as 1,700 years ago. The chipped stone suggests that tribal members also fashioned their arrowheads in the rock shelter.

Like other etchings found in caves around the county, archeologists say, it holds clues to ancient civilizations that roamed the area, some dating back 3,000 years.

The language of the walls--the carvings and drawings--is unknown, and experts say they can only guess at the meaning. Some could have served as navigational tools; some could have religious or ceremonial connotations. But some experts say there is still information that 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."

Preserving Sites Isn't Mandatory

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 over the site, provided that 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 their scientific worth. They are sacred ground and should be preserved--no matter how insignificant the artifacts may appear to be, the tribes say.

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

Paul Apodaca, a Chapman University professor and an authority on 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."

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 Irvine Co. to study the cave.

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