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Letter from California: Going Coastal Volume 60 Number 3, May/June 2007
by Blake Edgar

The Channel Islands may hold the key to New World prehistory.

[image] Shell fishhooks were introduced some 2,500 years ago. (Blake Edgar) [LARGER IMAGE]

I'm perched on wave-rounded cobbles jutting from a cliff high above the Pacific Ocean on San Miguel Island. Pigeon guillemots paddle across the surface of a kelp bed below, and cormorants roost on offshore outcrops. Nearby, spatters of bird guano cover one of the oldest archaeological sites in the Americas, a dense, deep pile of shell and bone extending upslope to Daisy Cave. Here archaeologists have uncovered evidence of ancient American mariners--from shell and bone remains of seafood meals to twine, nets, and sandals made of seagrass. This windswept spot within sight of the southern California coast harbors clues to human knowledge of the sea at a time when Paleoindian hunters roamed North America. Among the oldest sites anywhere on the Pacific coast, Daisy Cave has yielded the region's earliest hook-and-line fishing kit, shell beads, and basketry. Along with other sites on the Channel Islands, it may ultimately reveal whether some of the first Americans arrived by boat along a coastal "kelp highway."

Decades after the first excavations here, the Channel Islands have become an important archaeological laboratory. They reveal a record of continuous human occupation dating from about 13,000 years ago to the nineteenth century, and ranging from ephemeral camps to crowded villages. Most likely, the islands' first inhabitants were ancestors of the Chumash, who later developed one of the world's most complex hunter-gatherer societies. The islands' rich prehistory, pristine site preservation, and precise stratigraphy combine to act as a powerful lure to archaeologists studying cultural evolution and prehistoric maritime adaptation.

Blake Edgar is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America