Irvine Co., Indians Divided by a Wall Carving


The historical and religious significance of a tiny, ancient wall carving that may be bulldozed for 2,500 homes has prompted growing debate between local American Indian groups and the Irvine Co.

The carving is little more than a doodle, according to archeologists who have seen it--a wavy line about 4 inches long with a circle at one end. It was cut into the wall of a shallow cave by local Indians almost 2,000 years ago on Irvine Co. land near the Turtle Rock community.

Company officials and archeologists have invited local tribal representatives to view it and submit ideas for its fate. But they say there are far larger, more significant finds that will be preserved in the area.

Local Native American groups, however, say the site and others like it are sacred grounds that should be left intact.


“The Turtle Rock area is considered one of the more sacred areas, and I would imagine these sites could be tied to some of our major villages,” said Dameon Shilo, chairman of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians.

The hollow with the carving is one of nine containing Indian artifacts that dot 1,600 acres of rugged land in Irvine at the foot of the San Joaquin Hills. Seven will be preserved on roughly 1,000 acres of open land between the San Joaquin Hills toll road and Shady Canyon Road.

The remaining two, which sit on opposite sides of an unnamed creek, are in the middle of an area where the Irvine Co. has approvals to build the homes.

One of the sites will be demolished. Numerous archeologists agree that the crushed shells and chipped stone inside tell little about the Native Americans who used it. The site has been documented, as required by law, and archeologists will monitor demolition in case other artifacts hidden in the soil are turned up. If so, any significant artifacts will be removed.


The other cave contains the wall carving that some consider a valuable archeological find.

While such cave drawings or carvings exist throughout Southern California, the debate over this one centers on whether every fragment can, or should, be preserved to maintain historic and cultural links.

The floor of the cave containing the small etching is thick with midden--a dark, greasy soil mixed with shells, plant material and chipped stone. Archeologists say the midden shows that tribes probably ate meals here, perhaps as long as 1,700 years ago. The chipped stone suggests that tribal members also fashioned their arrowheads in the rock shelter.

Archeologists say the carving, like other etchings found in caves around the county, holds clues to ancient civilizations that roamed the area--some dating back thousands of years before Jesus’ time.

The language of the walls--the carvings and drawings--is unknown, and experts say they can only guess at the meaning. Some images could have served as navigational tools, and some could have religious or ceremonial connotations. But experts say information can be gleaned from them.

“We believe the site is important and still has a lot of information in it,” said Pamela Maxwell, an archeologist with the Army Corps of Engineers who examined the cave. “It can tell us what was going on at that time. But ultimately, it’s the Irvine Co.'s property, and we cannot legally demand that they save it.”

Under the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, developers are required to study the significance of archeological sites. While preservation is encouraged, it isn’t mandatory. The developer can build on the site, provided the artifacts and other important information are documented in some way.

But to members of the Juaneno and Gabrielino/Tongva tribes, whose ancestors inhabited the area, the value of the rock shelters goes beyond scientific worth. They are sacred and should be preserved--no matter how insignificant the artifacts may appear.


“This is part of our history; it is tied to our culture,” Shilo said.

Documentation Isn’t Enough, Indians Say

Paul Apodaca, a Chapman University professor and an expert in Native American studies, cautions against tampering with historic sites--no matter how small they might be.

“It’s not acceptable to destroy the artifacts of history, even if they are documented on paper,” said Apodaca, a Native American. “Later generations can always question whether that documentation is accurate or even true.”

The Irvine Co. generally favors preservation but believes it can be taken to an extreme, said Steve Letterly, vice president of environmental permitting.

“At some point, these groups will have to decide what’s important to preserve,” said Steve Conkling, an archeologist hired by the Irvine Co. to study the cave.

If the cave, known to bureaucrats as ORA-269, is destroyed, it wouldn’t be the first time the Irvine Co. has bulldozed an ancient Native American site. In 1995 and 1996, the company unearthed about 600 human burial sites and thousands of artifacts estimated to be 4,000 to 9,500 years old. The excavation was done to make way for 149 luxury homes in the Harbor Cove community above Newport Beach’s Back Bay.

The bones later were reburied by local tribes, and artifacts were preserved off-site, as dictated by state and federal laws. But some experts, including one from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, decried destruction of the site.


In this case, however, Irvine Co. officials say there are caves more intriguing than this that are to be preserved. One, believed to have been used about 3,000 years ago, sits atop a hill overlooking Upper Newport Bay. Inside the cavern is a carving of a rattlesnake that spans the interior.

“This is one of the most important sites in the San Joaquin Hills, if not the whole county,” Conkling said. “It can tell us how the culture changed over time.”

Irvine Co. Says Such Caves Are Common

Archeologists believe that that site was used by tribes for thousands of years. Because of its location, Conkling said, it may have been a tribal meeting place.

Irvine Co. officials say they have gone to great lengths to preserve that and the other most significant sites.

“That’s why you have a 1,600-acre project area with 1,009 acres preserved in open space,” Letterly said. “That’s where seven of these sites are.”

But, Letterly said, shelters and caves like these are not uncommon. There are 1,500 of them in Orange County, according to state records.

“If you took any 1,600 acres along the San Joaquin Hills, there’s a good chance you would find more resources,” Letterly said.

Irvine Co. officials have invited several local tribes to tour the sites and offer suggestions for preservation, or alternatives if the company decides to level the cave.

Options could include taking archival photos, making a relief of the etching or removing the portion of the rock on which it appears, Conkling said.

“I don’t think anything is off the table at this point,” Conkling said. “But there’s a variety of things you can do. . . . What’s important is getting together with these groups and figuring out how we can capture the value of what’s being affected.”

So far, the company has heard from three groups, including Anthony Morales, who chairs the Gabrielino/Tongva Tribal Council in San Gabriel.

Morales would like to see all nine caves, including this one, remain intact. He said the Irvine Co. may be overlooking the cultural significance of the entire project area.

“It seems to me with that many sites, it could have been a gathering place or even a village,” Morales said. “You have nine recorded sites, and that to me is indicative that there was a living habitat there.”

Getting everyone to agree on a plan could be difficult, said Rob Wood, an environmental specialist with the Native American Heritage Commission in Sacramento. A small etching in a rock might not seem important to some, but it could hold a lot of meaning to the descendants of the tribe that put it there.

“These sites are extremely significant from a religious and cultural standpoint,” Wood said. “Because California is an area under constant development, these sites disappear all the time. They’re a finite resource, and people will fight very hard to ensure these sites are preserved.”