A West Coast that was still the forest primeval

Donald Johanson is the author of many books, including "From Lucy to Language" (with Blake Edgar) and "The Skull of Australopithecus Afarensis" (with William Kimbel and Yoel Rak).

There is something mysterious, even romantic and adventurous about archeology -- just look at the success of the Indiana Jones movies. How many of us have been stirred by the finding of an arrowhead or a potsherd in a plowed field? Just the knowledge that these cultural objects were fashioned by some unknown hand thousands of years ago is enough to trigger our imaginations. As a species we possess an almost instinctive proclivity to search for clues left by those who came before us. Archeology is a process that spans a rewarding intellectual quest from the thrill of discovery to the challenge of interpretation and publication.

Brian Fagan is one of those rare scholars who has made a determined and successful effort to bring the excitement of archeology to the public. A widely respected archeologist and the author of some 30 books, he provides us, in "Before California," with a tour of the Golden State long before the decimation of its native peoples began in the 18th and 19th centuries. Combining his far-reaching knowledge of archeology with a unique ability to synthesize information from diverse fields, Fagan presents an informative rendering of California's past, starting 13,000 years ago and taking us to 1542, when Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first sailed into San Diego Bay.

"[T]he story of ancient California is a fractured portrait," Fagan writes, "much of it created by generations of mindless archaeology, widespread destruction, a confusing and often effectively inaccessible literature, and poor preservation." Despite these limitations, Fagan offers a coherent narrative of California prehistory and how its people struggled against El Nino, drought, intense competition for food and other challenges.

Apparently the first inhabitants of California, the Paleo-Indians, arrived bearing the spear tip known as the Clovis point, named after the site in New Mexico where it was first found. The Clovis people encountered an abundant megafauna -- large animals such as camels, horses, saber-toothed tigers, sloths and mammoths. Interestingly, the extinction of these creatures closely follows the arrival of the Clovis people. Climatic change and global warming may also have played a role.

Archeologists are divided on how these early immigrants reached California. One scenario suggests that Clovis peoples followed a coastal route, traveling south from Alaska in small oceangoing craft. Fagan, an accomplished sailor himself, notes that early hunter-gatherers had simple watercraft but that the dangers of "coasting" in small vessels along the rugged California coastline were overwhelming. He favors an overland route, with the Clovis people trekking in from the east and subsisting on a variety of plant foods (supplemented with the meat of large and small animals, and perhaps even mollusks and sea mammals for those who reached the Pacific Coast).

With the extinction of the megafauna, California's early inhabitants turned increasingly toward exploitation of edible plants such as grasses, roots, tubers and acorns. Unfortunately, the first 8,000 years or so of prehistory in California constitute what Fagan calls "a vast black hole." Hunter-gatherers, probably not very populous, were constantly on the move, leaving little behind to indicate occupation and lifestyle, with the exception of flat milling stones used to process seeds. These early populations must have been severely limited by the prolonged period of warming temperatures and increasing aridity termed the Altithermal, which lasted from 8,500 to 4,000 years ago.

The Channel Islands off the Southern California coast are an intriguing exception in this black hole of time. During periods of much lower sea level, the northern islands were only six miles distant from the mainland. Archeological sites attest that regular excursions were undertaken by early peoples, probably in small planked canoes. Eel Point, on the southwestern shore of San Clemente Island, preserves sites reaching back as far as 8,500 years ago. Here the Paleo-Indians could easily club sea lions. Even more interesting was the recovery of dolphin bones: Fagan believes that dolphins feeding near the shore were disoriented by fishermen, who knocked cobbles together underwater and then herded the confused animals into shallow water.

Fagan emphasizes that California's climate during the Altithermal was the driest and warmest since the end of the Ice Age. This led to a scarcity of food, forcing early inhabitants to turn to one of the most abundant resources available: acorns. Not only do oak trees, with their gnarled branches, make for a stunning countryside as one drives along roads like the Silverado Trail in the Napa Valley, but the 15 species could have produced "enough nuts to feed fifty to sixty times more people than lived in California at Spanish contact." Beginning about 4,500 years ago, archeology suggests, there was an "acorn revolution" when abundant and easily harvested acorns were systematically collected, processed and stored. Animals such as tule elk, bighorn sheep and deer were also regularly hunted. And along the coastline, salmon and steelhead provided another plentiful source of food. Fagan postulates that "rising populations, finite food supplies, much more confined hunting territories, and increasing interconnectedness -- all the ingredients for conflict and competition -- were there."

During the first millennium, cyclic climatic conditions of drought and heavy rainfall during an El Nino, not unlike what happens today, led to food shortages and even famine. Under such stressful circumstances there was heightened competition for resources, which led to violence and conflict. Physical anthropologists, like forensic scientists, have closely analyzed human skeletons and found numerous examples of disease and trauma. Trauma, such as healed bone fractures, suggested greater violence and aggression coinciding with periods of drought and climatic instability. After the bow and arrow arrived in California, skeletons also showed injuries typically associated with projectiles.

"Before California" is crammed with fascinating archeological details, but rather than simply recounting "the facts," Fagan successfully intertwines three main threads that serve to organize this wide-ranging foray into California's past. The first relates to what he calls "continuity of culture." Fagan sees the roots of native societies in ancient California stretching back thousands of years -- signs of its continued population growth suggest that the people succeeded in adapting to environmental change.

The second thread is the environmentally fractured landscape of California. Fagan sees a "web of interconnectedness" that typified all prehistoric societies. Spiritual beliefs, the third thread, are frustratingly difficult to reconstruct from the archeological record. Though California's rich rock art undoubtedly reflects, at least in part, the sophisticated and complex supernatural world of ancient societies, its meaning resides in a "now vanished world, whose vast bodies of lore and knowledge are lost to us."

"Almost nothing of the ancient California world remains," Fagan laments, pointing out that in the 16th century there was an estimated population of 310,000 native people, speaking some 60 languages. Each society was rich in tradition, oral history and culture, nearly all of which are now gone forever. Once California was "discovered" by Europeans, the decimation of its indigenous peoples was relentless. By 1900 only about 20,000 California Indians remained. Although the current landscape would certainly be an enigma to the early inhabitants, the spirit of the people of California is still much the same. In a state that continues to present challenges of unpredictability, there will be survivors, thinkers and innovators who, like those of the distant past, will find successful ways to adapt and live in the Golden State.

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