From the sandy depths of their excavations, the diggers have brought up bones and tools. They have found tiny decorative beads and complete dwellings.
But most of all, a Cal State Northridge archeological project on San Clemente Island off the coast of Los Angeles is uncovering a prehistoric Indian culture that may provide clues to how and when the first humans lived in California.
Under the direction of anthropologist Mark Raab, the CSUN excavation project on San Clemente--about 48 miles off the coast of the Palos Verdes Peninsula--has progressed for nearly five years. Crews of archeology and anthropology students work weekly shifts on the federally owned island, and their findings--items dating back nearly 10,000 years to the ice age--may help change long-held notions about prehistoric life.
Raab said the archeological evidence indicates that the Indians lived on the island nearly 5,000 years before the previous estimated date of habitation for the Channel Islands. That places these prehistoric Californians who lived off the sea in the same timeframe as their counterparts who were hunting mammoths and other big game on the North American mainland.
"What we are finding is that some of the first inhabitants of the New World were stalking nothing more dramatic than shellfish, as opposed to mammoths," Raab said. "If that's true, it means a whole new chapter in the peopling of the New World will have to be written along those lines."
San Clemente, the southernmost of the eight Channel Islands, has a land surface of about 57 square miles and has been controlled by the Navy since 1934. A bombing target for decades, only about 10% of the island is still used by the Navy, including two square miles for missile testing.
The rest remains natural environment, said Jan Larson, natural resources manager for the North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego, which manages the island.
"Because we know we have great abundances of precious cultural resources . . . we are trying to concentrate the destructive activities on areas where there is a low density" of archeological deposits, said Larson, a civilian Navy employee.
The Indians are long gone from San Clemente, having left the island by 1829, according to records found in the Spanish missions.
However, much about the Indians--possibly related to the Gabrielinos that settled the Los Angeles Basin--remains unknown. The island has drawn archeological interest since at least the 1870s, when a government map-maker charting the island gathered artifacts for the Smithsonian Institution. But no inquiry into the island's prehistoric past has been as extensive or ambitious as those begun in the 1980s.
Under a federal mandate to preserve archeological sites on its properties, the Navy approached archeologists at UCLA and CSUN and entered into cooperative agreements to allow long-term study of the island. In addition to allowing the researchers onto the island, the Navy provides housing, food and the aircraft that fly them there and back.
Archeological deposits on San Clemente have been preserved for a number of reasons. The island has remained largely undeveloped and there are no species of burrowing animals that could destroy artifacts. Its arid climate has left the soil dry, which also helps preserve archaic materials.
And while most other coastlines in Southern California have crumbled into the sea over time, geological pressure is forcing the island to rise from the ocean.
Raab said that such San Clemente excavation sites as Eel Point--where artifacts nearly 10,000 years old have been found--would probably not have survived erosion and development on the mainland.
Raab, director of CSUN's Center for Public Archaeology, has headed preliminary excavations at a dozen sites as part of a survey of the island's archeological resources.
In the sandy loam of the island, the students have unearthed numerous round "pit houses" in which Indians lived beneath roofs made of whale bones, driftwood and branches from island oak trees. The excavators have found stone hearths and tools made from sharpened bones. There are stone pestles and bowls used for grinding food.
Among the discoveries was what Larson called a "prehistoric tackle box"--a pouch made of woven sea grass, containing hooks carved from shells and other fishing tools made from bone.
The "trash" of this prehistoric society is also of special interest to the diggers. The midden pits where the Indians discarded shells offer a glimpse of what the Indians ate, which in turn documents the marine life of the surrounding ocean for thousands of years.
The middens, some larger than an acre, contain shells from abalone, snails, crabs and clams. There is also fish bone and remains of sea urchins.
Ginger Bradford, a CSUN master's student in anthropology who is part of the San Clemente project, said that by taking samples from the midden shell piles and sorting them by species, the researchers can determine the diet of the Indians as well as the abundance or shortage of differing species of marine life in the waters off the island.
"It is very exciting because we are looking at very early marine adaption" by humans, she said.
The middens also have been a key to charting the antiquity of the people who lived on San Clemente. Radiocarbon tests of Eel Point materials such as burned wood from cooking fires found by UCLA researchers have brought three dates ranging from 9,400 to 9,800 years ago.
The tests are helping to corroborate similar findings on other Channel Islands. But Raab and Larson said the San Clemente dates are convincing because they are from material--such as logs from cooking pits--that show the human touch.
"There is no other way that the deposits got there than by human activity," Larson said.
Raab said confidence is so high because the wood coals were found among shells, stone tools and other human deposits in a midden located in a sand dune far from any other vegetation. "The coals are part and parcel of artifacts laid down by the Indians," he said.
Nevertheless, Raab acknowledged, convincing the academic community outside of the CSUN team may take more dating and analysis of artifacts.
Michael Glassow, an archeologist at UC Santa Barbara, who has studied the northern Channel Islands, said the San Clemente dates are exciting but a pattern of equally old dates might be needed for the CSUN theory to be considered fact.
"A scientist is always skeptical," Glassow said.
Andrew Yatsko, a Navy archeologist who has overseen work on San Clemente for eight years, said he expects the antiquity of the Indians on San Clemente to be accepted by the academic community. "It's pretty fresh information, but I don't think there will be any problem with its acceptance in the long run," he said.
As the San Clemente researchers press on, another exciting aspect of the project is that the burned wood found in the Eel Point midden was discovered at a depth of 15 feet--not the deepest or oldest layer of the midden. Raab said that by excavating farther, the researchers may find even older artifacts--possibly even the earliest signs of humans in California, for which currently the best established dates range from 11,000 to 13,000 years ago.
Raab hopes to excavate farther in the midden during the next two years.
"I am intrigued with the question of when the first humans came to California," Raab said. "I think that in some ways one of our best chances to answer that question might be on the Channel Islands."
The discoveries on San Clemente may also change long-held views on the way the first inhabitants of North America lived.
Raab said dating of artifacts from the Channel Islands is already disproving theories that Indians did not inhabit the islands until about 5,000 years ago. The artifacts that portray the island dwellers as exploiters of the sea as long as 10,000 years ago also contradict the previous view that sea-oriented people came after the hunters of big game.
"All North American prehistory textbooks focus on the big-game hunters," Raab said. "The prevailing view is that the first people were big-game hunters, and descendant from those hunters--because of the spread of population--were fishermen and people who exploited the sea. The idea was that people would go after these large plants and animals before they would try to get food from the sea."
But on San Clemente, Raab said, "we have people that were not hunting big game. These are people who were hunting sea animals and were collecting shellfish and fishing. So it may well be that even at the earliest levels in the New World, the people that came here practiced a variety of ways of life."
Raab said the significance of the San Clemente project is just now beginning to find its way into academia through student theses and articles by faculty members. He said the delay is not unusual because of the lengthy period needed to excavate and then analyze data.
However, Raab acknowledges, convincing other anthropologists and archeologists of the island's significance may be difficult because the traditional portrait of the first North Americans as big-game hunters is a more stirring and dramatic view.
"By contrast, people who may have made a living by collecting clams and whacking sea mammals over the head don't look very dramatic," Raab said. "But, in fact, that may be as old an adaptation in the New World as people chasing around mammoths."
So far, the Navy has been receptive to continuing the project and recently awarded Raab a $115,000 grant to fund the activity on the island until next summer. The Navy's agreement with CSUN ends then, but it probably will be extended another five years, Larson said.
"The significance of what they are finding on the island is second to none," he said.
It appears that such sentiments don't only exist in the Navy. Glassow of UCSB said there is no doubt that the CSUN project has added to the burgeoning knowledge about the Channel Islands Indians.
"Absolutely," Glassow said. "We are beginning to learn more about these early periods of time. The archeology on San Clemente is very interesting. There is great preservation there. They have some of the earliest dates" of artifacts.
The project is also garnering interest from across the country. Raab reported that each summer applications for 25 student slots in the CSUN archeological field school on the island grow and include students from schools as close as UCLA and as far as the University of Maine.
Bradford, a master's student, said she enrolled at CSUN after finishing undergraduate studies at San Francisco State University because she learned of the island project. "In anthropology and archeology circles, this program is getting well known," she said.
In nearly five years, the CSUN team has amassed nearly 1,000 pounds of artifacts. The evaluation of what it all means is largely carried out in a small lab at CSUN. It is a place so crowded with computers, reference collections and shelves holding the analytical data and artifacts that it is known as the "submarine" by those involved in the project.
It is here that the not-so-glamorous work takes place. Raab said that the rule of thumb is that one day in the field creates three days of tedious work inside the submarine.
The artifacts are sorted and catalogued, and their descriptions are fed into a computer. Broken artifacts are carefully pieced together, parts of a puzzle for which there is no guarantee all pieces are present.
"It's not much like 'Indiana Jones,' " Raab said. "Some of our most exciting discoveries are not made in the field. They are made on the computer back here after thousands of pieces of information are entered and collated."
It is from this work that the final theories about the Indians of San Clemente will be developed and, Raab and others hope, the mysteries solved.
"I hope that we can reveal a new chapter of human history in the Americas," Raab said. "In the largest sense, what this points to is learning something about another branch of the human family. It's very exciting. We have a sense of being pioneers."