Channel Islands National Park
Chumash descendents reach the shores of Santa Cruz Island in a re-creation of a Chumash tomol crossing.

Rising Tide Threatens Native Historic Sites in Channel Islands


Indigenous people, primarily the Chumash, inhabited the Channel Islands as far back as 13,000 years ago. Historic village sites in the islands are at danger of being lost forever, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The Times was recently on Santa Cruz Island, where 11 historic village sites have been identified, with archaeologist Torben Rick, curator of anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

“Things like this are golden because they can help us better understand the people who lived here and how they dealt with some of the same unstoppable forces we face today,” he told the Times as he picked up a small pink bead. “The trouble is, a few more storms and all this valuable history will be washed out to sea.”

Conservationists and archaeologists recently took the first full accounting of sites threatened on Santa Cruz Island.

Of the dozens of sites recently surveyed, eight were designated as “code red,” reports the Times, meaning they have significant archaeological resources and are in real danger of being destroyed by rising seas.

“The real tragedy, and the urgency, is that sea level rise is destroying wholesale the opportunity to learn about our past—information we can use to be better conservationists,” Scott Morrison, the Nature Conservancy’s director of conservation science, told the Times. “We’re trying to do something about that.”

The team that did the survey even conducted an “emergency archaeological rescue” of artifacts—arrowheads, stone implements, woven rope and fabric—buried in layers of sand and driftwood in a remote cave, reported the Times.

They also recovered a plank of redwood smeared with brown tar, it was used to repair a hole in a canoe.

“The last time one of these planks was found was in the 1960s,” Jon M. Erlandson, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon and expert on Santa Cruz Island’s cultural resources, told the Times.

“We’re standing on a living history book,” Gil Unzueta, a Chumash Indian who is monitoring the survey effort, told the Times. “And we’re losing pages from it every day.”

Today, the Chumash people continue to celebrate their culture by re-creating the tomol crossings from the mainland to Santa Cruz Island, a harrowing journey. A tomol is a redwood canoe.

Read more about the archaeological sites discovered on the Island in the article: “Historic Chumash Settlement on Eastern Santa Cruz Island, Southern California.”

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