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A West Coast that was still the forest primeval

Before California: An Archaeologist Looks at Our Earliest Inhabitants; Brian Fagan; Rowman & Littlefield: 400 pp., $29.95

November 23, 2003|Donald Johanson | Donald Johanson is the author of many books, including "From Lucy to Language" (with Blake Edgar) and "The Skull of Australopithecus Afarensis" (with William Kimbel and Yoel Rak).

There is something mysterious, even romantic and adventurous about archeology -- just look at the success of the Indiana Jones movies. How many of us have been stirred by the finding of an arrowhead or a potsherd in a plowed field? Just the knowledge that these cultural objects were fashioned by some unknown hand thousands of years ago is enough to trigger our imaginations. As a species we possess an almost instinctive proclivity to search for clues left by those who came before us. Archeology is a process that spans a rewarding intellectual quest from the thrill of discovery to the challenge of interpretation and publication.

Brian Fagan is one of those rare scholars who has made a determined and successful effort to bring the excitement of archeology to the public. A widely respected archeologist and the author of some 30 books, he provides us, in "Before California," with a tour of the Golden State long before the decimation of its native peoples began in the 18th and 19th centuries. Combining his far-reaching knowledge of archeology with a unique ability to synthesize information from diverse fields, Fagan presents an informative rendering of California's past, starting 13,000 years ago and taking us to 1542, when Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first sailed into San Diego Bay.

"[T]he story of ancient California is a fractured portrait," Fagan writes, "much of it created by generations of mindless archaeology, widespread destruction, a confusing and often effectively inaccessible literature, and poor preservation." Despite these limitations, Fagan offers a coherent narrative of California prehistory and how its people struggled against El Nino, drought, intense competition for food and other challenges.

Apparently the first inhabitants of California, the Paleo-Indians, arrived bearing the spear tip known as the Clovis point, named after the site in New Mexico where it was first found. The Clovis people encountered an abundant megafauna -- large animals such as camels, horses, saber-toothed tigers, sloths and mammoths. Interestingly, the extinction of these creatures closely follows the arrival of the Clovis people. Climatic change and global warming may also have played a role.

Archeologists are divided on how these early immigrants reached California. One scenario suggests that Clovis peoples followed a coastal route, traveling south from Alaska in small oceangoing craft. Fagan, an accomplished sailor himself, notes that early hunter-gatherers had simple watercraft but that the dangers of "coasting" in small vessels along the rugged California coastline were overwhelming. He favors an overland route, with the Clovis people trekking in from the east and subsisting on a variety of plant foods (supplemented with the meat of large and small animals, and perhaps even mollusks and sea mammals for those who reached the Pacific Coast).

With the extinction of the megafauna, California's early inhabitants turned increasingly toward exploitation of edible plants such as grasses, roots, tubers and acorns. Unfortunately, the first 8,000 years or so of prehistory in California constitute what Fagan calls "a vast black hole." Hunter-gatherers, probably not very populous, were constantly on the move, leaving little behind to indicate occupation and lifestyle, with the exception of flat milling stones used to process seeds. These early populations must have been severely limited by the prolonged period of warming temperatures and increasing aridity termed the Altithermal, which lasted from 8,500 to 4,000 years ago.

The Channel Islands off the Southern California coast are an intriguing exception in this black hole of time. During periods of much lower sea level, the northern islands were only six miles distant from the mainland. Archeological sites attest that regular excursions were undertaken by early peoples, probably in small planked canoes. Eel Point, on the southwestern shore of San Clemente Island, preserves sites reaching back as far as 8,500 years ago. Here the Paleo-Indians could easily club sea lions. Even more interesting was the recovery of dolphin bones: Fagan believes that dolphins feeding near the shore were disoriented by fishermen, who knocked cobbles together underwater and then herded the confused animals into shallow water.

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