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Island's Wild Pigs Destroying 8,000 Years of Chumash History

Archeology: Swine on Santa Cruz ruin artifacts as they root for food. The animals are targeted for eradication next year, but that may be too late.

July 28, 2002|DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a Santa Cruz Island bluff high over the ocean, Sam Spaulding looked helplessly among ragged holes and uprooted fennel plants at scattered mounds of Chumash artifacts.

"This chunk of material is not in its natural state," said Spaulding, an archeologist for Channel Islands National Park. "The pigs moved it. It's out of place, out of time. It doesn't have any credible place in the story of this site. It's like ripping the page out of a book."

The earth around him looks like a battlefield, punctured with holes 3 or 4 feet deep. The midden--an ancient Chumash trash heap of shells, bone, pottery fragments and other material--has been scattered, rendering it virtually useless to archeologists. Whatever story unfolded on this remote, wind-swept point and other spots throughout the island is destined to remain untold.

More than 8,000 years of human history here are being destroyed by wild pigs digging up ancient burial sites and mangling artifacts in a place where the Chumash believe their tribe was created.

"It's devastating," said Jeanne Arnold, a UCLA anthropology professor who has done work on Santa Cruz for 24 years. "They can dig 2- or 3-foot holes in a matter of minutes. They are destroying the heritage of the Chumash people out there."

Park officials estimate that nearly all 687 identified archeological sites on the island have been damaged by pigs, which are targeted for eradication beginning next year. Archeologists estimate there are at least twice as many additional sites that have not yet been identified.

Pigs root for moisture-packed fennel bulbs and Jerusalem crickets on the 65,000-acre island, the largest in the Channel Island chain.

"The archeological sites on the Channel Islands are a wonderful treasure," said John Johnson, curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. "But the pigs are disrupting our ability to interpret the upper layers of the site. Shell ornaments, objects made of bone and burial relics will be scattered. The ability of an archeologist to reconstruct past life ways depends on the ability to re-create the lives of those who lived there. Once it's disturbed, you can no longer tell the story."

Santa Cruz, once the most densely populated island off the California coast, was at one time home to 2,000 residents and 10 villages.

Scientists believe the island's inhabitants ran the equivalent of a mint for tribes throughout Southern California. The name Chumash, they say, is derived from the word "alchum," the tribal term for money. The islanders used shells, like those of the purple olive snail, to make small, delicate bead money that they exchanged with mainland tribes for acorns and deer meat.

The stone tools, fine chert knife blades, mortars and pestles date as far back as 8000 B.C. Archeologists have also found village sites and houses below the surface. On nearby Santa Rosa Island, the bones of a 13,000-year-old woman were found at a place called Arlington Springs, and on San Miguel Island, a few miles away, a 10,000- year-old woven child's sandal was discovered in a cave.

"The pigs are uprooting the resting place of these people, my ancestors," said Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, a Chumash woman whose great-grandparents grew up on the island before it was abandoned in the early 1800s. "I don't like the idea of killing animals, but they are not native to the place and it has to be done for the greater good of Santa Cruz Island."

Fences have been put around some of the most significant sites, but the swine just dig under them.

The pigs, whose numbers are estimated at up to 4,000, descended from a domestic herd kept on the island by one M.J. Box of Santa Barbara in the early 1850s. Somehow more than 200 escaped, eventually becoming wild. They are hairy, occasionally tusked and, when food is plentiful, can double their population every four months, biologists say.

Though the animals have been around for 150 years, the porcine effect on archeology has increased. About 15 years ago, the National Park Service removed thousands of grazing sheep, reducing competition for food and creating a pig population boom.

"Around the time the sheep got off the island, it got bad, and in the past few years it's gotten worse," said Michael Glassow, chairman of the anthropology department at UC Santa Barbara.

In the early 1990s, the park service killed the pigs on Santa Rosa Island, and it is planning to do the same on Santa Cruz beginning next year. The pigs will be trapped and shot.

Animal rights advocates have urged park officials to shoot the animals with contraceptives so the herd can die off on its own. But officials say the idea is impractical and time-consuming. Further, the pigs don't taste good and they can't be taken off the island because some carry disease.

Kate Faulkner, chief of natural resources management for Channel Islands National Park, said the extensive damage by the pigs leaves little choice.

"The only way to protect the sites is to eradicate the pigs," she said.

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