A mapping error has led to the accidental clearing of a centuries-old Chumash Indian prayer ground at a Camarillo housing tract, destroying artifacts and angering Indian activists.
The area has been cordoned off and work halted until archeologists can assess its historical significance and salvage remaining artifacts.
The incident--by all accounts an accident--has upset Camarillo officials, who had tried to safeguard the site by requiring the developer, Thousand Oaks-based Barclay Hollander Corp., to complete archeological studies before construction.
1,000 Units Planned
The brush removal took place in late January at Camarillo Springs, a planned 1,000-unit housing tract on 400 acres set against the Santa Monica Mountains. It is believed to be the city's first residential development on a recognized archeological site.
Chumash representatives are especially worried because the site, abutting the north slope of the Conejo grade, sits near one painted cave and three other caves that Indian officials describe as "altar-shaped." Since 1973, Chumash spiritual leaders have used the caves, which are secluded in brush, for religious ceremonies, including prayers, traditional songs and lighting of fires.
But the clearing of the brush has left the caves, which are just off the housing tract property, exposed to treasure hunters and sightseers, according to Posh Moyle, cultural resources coordinator for the 6,000-member United Southern Chumash Council.
At the request of Chumash representatives, Barclay Hollander has agreed to put up fencing or landscaping to help conceal the caves.
Indian officials have also brought in the state's Native American Heritage Commission to monitor negotiations with the developer. The commission mediates such disputes throughout California and has the authority to bring lawsuits to stop construction when ancient Indian sites are threatened.
The clearing work occurred after a contractor's construction crew used a map that incorrectly showed the Chumash area as being 100 yards east of the actual site, according to Lawrence Moore, a consultant to Barclay Hollander, which is a subsidiary of Castle & Cooke of Honolulu.
When clearing the brush, bulldozers cut into the topsoil, leaving deep furrows and scattering broken seashells, fragments of animal bones and bits of stone thought to be parts of arrowheads and tools.
Moyle said the clearing also may have broken a few stone bowls used for cooking, as well as pieces of obsidian, a black, glassy stone that was shaped into cutting tools.
"I think they were negligent," she said of the developer.
Moyle said the site, which may date back to 500 A. D., probably was not the location of a settlement but was used for religious ceremonies.
The Chumash, one of the largest tribes in California, ranged from San Luis Obispo to Malibu Canyon on the Pacific coast, and inland as far as the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley.
Developers in the rapidly growing areas of western Los Angeles County and Ventura County have frequently come across remains of Chumash settlements, sometimes causing delays in the projects while excavations are conducted.
The Camarillo Springs property also includes two other ancient Chumash sites, the Indians and the developer said. According to Moore, an excavation of one, as required by the city, revealed it has little historical value.
Another site, a large mound believed to have been the site of a Chumash village, has undergone only a surface survey. A complete archeological study will be made before that site is disturbed.
"All three have a significant value spiritually, one to each other," Moyle said. "You can't put it in writing."
Results of the study will be reviewed by Indian officials and the city before construction will resume. A tribal official will observe any work on the site.
"I think we've got a resolution," Moore said. "We're trying to cooperate."