To the uneducated eye, the place known as the Harris archeological site looks like vintage San Diego backcountry--a chaparral and weed-choked slope of land reaching up from a north county riverbed.
But to local archeologists, it represents a looking glass into the lives of the earliest people to inhabit the region--a gold mine of crude hand-carved tools and human remains about 15,000 years old.
It is one of the most important archeological sites in the western United States, archeologists say. But suddenly, these scientists lament, this priceless prehistoric place of American Indian life is being viewed as a potential roadblock to human progress.
The valued site sits in the path of a proposed four-lane highway--on county drawing boards for more than two decades--designed to ease the glut of traffic headed west across the winding country roads of Rancho Santa Fe.
In recent years, archeologists and architects have huddled to provide a solution, making repeated trips to the privately owned property in the tiny Santa Fe Valley--conducting studies and returning to the drawing board to devise three possible routes.
Next month, the county Board of Supervisors will consider the issue that pits the past against the present, deciding which highway route is best.
First excavated in 1938, the 61-acre tract could continue to yield valuable secrets and insights into an era dominated by melting glaciers and three native peoples, archeologists say.
"This site has a natural value in the understanding of human history, how we humans developed on this continent," said archeologist Florence Shipek. "If we lose it, we're going to lose a major 10,000- to 15,000-year chapter of Southern California history. And if that's not valuable, I don't know what is."
Frustrated homeowners in Rancho Santa Fe, who each day see waves of commuters speeding past their estate homes, see things differently.
Proposed Highway SA680 is designed to divert traffic from the affluent tree-shaded enclave. Two proposed routes for the highway would miss the archeological site--one by more than a mile, the other by several hundred yards. The third proposal would build the highway over the riverbed and the site.
Archeologists say that although the first two options might work, building a bridge over the site would bring traffic too close and might hinder future efforts to salvage artifacts beneath the surface.
"Recently, the archeological community has become more militant," said Walt Ekard, manager of the Rancho Santa Fe Assn., which is pushing for highway construction. "They're saying that not only can we not put a bridge over the site, but that even the air above the place is sacred. We think that's preposterous. Just ridiculous."
The landowner, the development company Sunland Communities Inc., agrees that the site should be salvaged, but is eager to have archeologists pinpoint the most valuable areas so building can proceed around them, said attorney Michael McDade.
"We're talking about a multimillion-dollar piece of property," McDade said. "And so every acre you can save is an expensive piece of real estate."
The site, named after former farmer and landowner C.W. Harris, was discovered in 1920 when Malcolm Rogers, a historian with the San Diego Museum of Man, walked several county riverbeds after a major storm.
Along the shores of the San Dieguito River, Rogers found numerous artifacts such as scraping tools and large spear points. He launched the first excavation of the site in 1938.
Since then, teams of archeologists have returned half a dozen times, said Roger Carrico, an archeologist who in 1991 completed a digging project there.
Three peoples, the San Dieguitans, the La Jollans and, finally, the Kumeyaay (pronounced Koom-yigh) established their elaborate and distinct cultures there over time, experts say.
Remains and artifacts have been found anywhere from three to nine feet underground--a profound depth considering that most archeological sites are exhausted after several feet.
Lynne Christenson, a San Diego State archeologist, said the Harris site has allowed scientists to play Sherlock Holmes in their back yards.
Little is known about the nomadic band of 40 or so San Dieguitans, the site's earliest inhabitants--hunters and fishers who established a temporary camp. Later, perhaps about 3,000 years ago, came the La Jollans, a more sedentary people who left traces of milling tools that they used to grind nuts, seeds and berries.
Also found from La Jollan culture were spear points, ornaments such as shell beads and abalone shell pendants, and sections of fire hearths.
Last came the Kumeyaay, who pounded acorns in large mortars. These were the people the first Spanish explorers encountered when they arrived in the region centuries ago.
"The truth is that site is irreplaceable," Christenson said.
"With further exploration, perhaps the site can tell us: 'Did the San Dieguitans turn into the La Jollans? What were the environmental changes that took place?' This is where we can find out: 'Did these people resemble the Plains Indians? Did they have tepees and horses? And if they didn't, why not?' "