Did the Polynesians beat Cabrillo to California? Part 2

In my last post I gave you some background information on the theory that Polynesians voyaged to the new world. Today I will discuss the title question. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was a Spanish explorer who was credited as being the first outsider to California. In 1756 he sailed into San Diego harbor, thus ensuring his place in history. He continued up the coast to the Santa Barbara Channel and the Channel Islands. This area was the home of the Chumash people, the subject of this whole two-parter.

The Chumash wereone of the greatest and most sophisticated of California’s tribes. The spanned the Central Coast from Morro Bay in the north to the southern reaches of Ventura County. They had a class system based on wealth. They had a crude economy that used shell beads as currency. They lived in sedentary villages where they harvested acorns, wild seeds, bulbs, cherries, and hunted game on the land while harvesting shellfish, fishing, and hunting marine mammals in the sea. They had a complex cosmology with many myths and vibrant art. Each person had their own specialized craft. They set up extensive trade routes throughout the Central Coast. They played a wide variety of games; they particularly loved gambling games, with the stakes being shell bead money, prized possessions, or even the resolution of political issues; they also had a game called shinny, which resembled modern field hockey (at large ceremonial gatherings, there could be as many as 300 players on the field). Chiefs gained their rank through ancestry and usually had an assistant chief (who could sometimes be a woman), and many tribes came together to form chiefdoms. The Chumash were undoubtedly a fascinating and complex culture.

Though what is often considered their greatest achievement is the tomol, also known as a plank canoe. While most Chumash tribes used canoes for fishing, the plank canoe was particularly common along the Santa Barbara coast, where it was used for trade with the tribes living on the Channel Islands. Accounts from Cabrillo’s voyage talk of how the Chumash paddled out in their canoes to greet the new comers. The tomol could be between 12 and 30 feet long and could take anywhere between 40 days and 6 months to build. The canoe was built from memory and was a laborious undertaking. First wood had to be gathered. Redwood was valued in particular (because it swells when wet) but since it does not grow on the Central Coast they would use pieces that washed up from the north. Once enough wood was collected the pieces would be split into planks ¾ of an inch thick using stone or whale bone chisels. Then the planks would be smoothed with shark skin sandpaper. Pine pitch and tar (two awesome facts about tar: 1. The Chumash word for tar is “Pismu”, which would give Pismo Beach its name; 2. Carpentaria in the early 20th century was the first asphalt mine in the world) were collected and ground, boiled, and then applied to the boards to hold them in place. Then holes would be drilled into each end of the plank where they would be tied together with milkweed fiber. Finally seams were sealed with tule reed and caulked with tar. Canoes were often painted with natural pigments. There was a special group of men called the Brotherhood of the Canoe who specialized in building and operating tomols and wore bearskin robes as a sign of their status. The tomol has almost become a symbol of the Chumash. It is mentioned and portrayed wherever you find the Chumash mentioned and portrayed:

Modern reconstruction of a Chumash tomol or plank canoe at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Model of a tomol at the Carpentaria Valley Museum of History

Part of a mural on the side of a building in Lompoc depicting Chumash men paddling a tomol. Mural by Robert Thomas

But to some, this canoe represents a critical piece of evidence in who discovered the new world before Columbus. A couple of experts, Terry Jones and Kathryn Klar, have noticed similarities between Chumash and Polynesian names for the tomol. Tomol is just short hand; the full name is tomolo’o, which Jones and Klar argue is very close to the Polynesian word tumuraa’au. It has further been argued by Jones that the tomolo’o is very similar to plank sewn canoes used in Polynesia. Another expert, Yoshihiko Sinoto sees similarities between Chumash fish hooks and fish hooks from Tahiti.  And I happen to have a little observation (because we all know I am oh so good at that /sarcasm) that may represent another possible link. In 2009 my dad and I took a trip to Painted Rock out in Carrizo Plain National Monument. Painted Rock is a large horseshoe shaped boulder on the northwestern edge of the valley. Inside lies the rock’s namesake: dozens of Chumash rock paintings. The paintings have suffered much from the elements and human carelessness but many are still clear and fascinating to look at. One in particular caught my eye. It was what appeared to be a horned anthropomorphic figure:

A Chumash pictograph portraying a horned anthropomorphic figure at Paint Rock, Carrizo Plain National Monument

It looked vaguely familiar. I felt like I had seen a similar piece of rock art somewhere before. It was only when I got home and looked through some old pictures that I realized where I had seen it before: Kona, Hawaii.

A petroglyph depicting a horned anthropomorphic figure at a site outside Kona, Hawaii

Similar names for similar technology. Fish hooks that bear uncanny resemblances to each other. And a possible link in ancient art forms. This is all tantalizing evidence that Polynesians visited California in the ancient past. But could it be true? About.com notes that implements for making the canoe (like drills, tar, and splitting wedges) have been found at the 8,000 year old Eel Point site on San Celemente Island (how reliable this source is I don’t know). Maybe further discoveries will shed more light on this enigmatic puzzle. The Chumash and the Polynesians continue to be two of my favorite “primitive” cultures. Finding evidence that they once met would be sweet icing on the cake!

Till next time!

Did the Polynesians beat Cabrillo to California? Part 1

Hey there every peoples!

Why do we celebrate Columbus’ so called discovery of the new world? Columbus was an overzealous nut job who made enemies everywhere he went, even driving his own men to mutiny. I guess we made it a holiday to mark the glorious day when the Americas were opened up to the “civilized” world. Except it was a load of crap. Not just the fact that Columbus’ mission was to find new lands to exploit to cover the crown’s debt, but also because he was not the first outsider to make it to the Americas. We have fairly good evidence that in 1000 AD the Vikings made a temporary settlement on the eastern coast of Canada. There is even some evidence (in the form of butternuts) that they may have gone further south into the northeastern United States. While many other ideas have arisen, only one can rival the Vikings legendary voyage.

If I were to ask you who the greatest sailors of the ancient world were, what answer would you give? Would say it was the Phoenicians? Or would you say it was the Chinese? Or maybe it was the aforementioned Vikings? Well what if I told you it was actually the Polynesians? Believe it or not Polynesians were master sailors, able to settle some of the most remote and isolated specs of land on earth using only Stone Age technology. They sailed in massive double hauled canoes capable of carrying dozens of people with cargo. They used charts made of stones (representing islands) and sticks (representing ocean currents) to chart their way across the Pacific. But did they get to the Americas? A growing body of evidence suggests that they did.

A Polynesian style double canoe. They ranged from 36 feet to over 60 feet long. Image from Tahiti1

Sweet potatoes were a major crop for Polynesians but the tuber is not native to the tropical Pacific. It is only found in the Americas. Sweet potato remains from Polynesia were analyzed and were found to be very similar to a variety grown in Ecuador.  An adventurer named Thor Heyerdahl proposed that ancient Peruvians had developed sea travel and spread the sweet potato that way. He even made a boat out of reeds and sailed it to show that such an idea was plausible. His hypothesis was met with much skepticism. But the discovery of bones on Mocha Island off the coast of Chile hinted that instead of Americans venturing out to Polynesia, it was the other way around. The bones bore several Polynesian traits, such as a rocker jaw and a pentagonal shaped cranium. It was tantalizing but far from conclusive. Enter the chicken bones!

Archaeologists digging at a site called El Arenal discovered a cash of chicken bones. Since we know chickens were not found in the new world before the Spanish arrived, the initial conclusion was that the site was post contact. But a few scientists scrutinized the bones and found they had traits of Polynesian breeds. A carbon dating test was applied to the bones and the date came back as being between a.d. 1321 and 1407. The Spanish had arrived on the western coast of South America in 1528. That would mean the bones came from a chicken that lived well before the Spanish conquest. The scientists argued that its genes meant it could only have come from one place: Polynesia. The discovery was so astounding that Archaeology Magazine named the chicken bones one of the top 10 discoveries of 2007.

One of the chicken bones found at El Arenal which bears Polynesian traits. Image from Archeaology.org

The bones immediately aroused controversy. A year later a paper was published that claimed the chickens were European descendants and that the dates may have been wrong. They claimed that dna of modern Chilean breeds have unique markers tying them to European stocks rather than Polynesians. They went on to add that marine sediments could have contaminated the bones, making them appear older than they actually are. A co-author of the original paper countered that further research only confirmed the original suspicions. Isotopes showed that the diet of the chickens was land based, not marine based, thus disproving the contamination idea. And since the dates seem solid, that would mean that the chickens were pre-columbian and hence had to come from somewhere else. (As a side note, they compared the dna of modern breeds. It is possible that breeds introduced by Polynesians were overwhelmed by the ones brought by the Spanish. It may be that the vast numbers of chickens brought by the Spanish could have drowned out the Polynesian traits. Just another random likely false thought by me).

The case for Polynesians making the voyage to South America is mounting. Even though physical evidence is turning up, there is of course the conundrum looming over this debate. Jan T over at Raising Islands puts it very well:

How could the amazing Polynesian voyaging culture have populated virtually every isolated island in the vast Pacific and missed the Americas? Answer, of course: It didn’t. The Polynesians simply failed to settle in the Americas, perhaps because there were already people there.

Take Rapanui (Easter Island) for example. It lies 2500 miles from Chile and 1500 miles from the Marquesas. Rapanui is 63.1 square miles in size. That’s almost 1/8 the size of Los Angeles. How the hell would they have managed to find this small spit of land in the middle of buttfuck nowhere and not be able to find their way to the Americas? It’s looking a lot like they did. What does this have to do with California? I’ll get to that in the next post, since I have gone on for so long I better split it up. Stay tuned for the intriguing conclusion!

Till next time!

Central Coast Living: Johnson Ranch

Hey there every peoples!

Sorry for the slow. I planned on writing this earlier in the week. But I was having some trouble with videos. It took a long time to render them, only to find out that youtube has a 15 minute limit (I haven’t used youtube for this purpose in a LONG time). So I had to split them up, render them again, and then they took forever to upload to Youtube. I don’t know if that’s Youtube’s fault or my computer’s but it was a pain in the ass. But in the end it was worth it. After all that, I was able to launch a new web series “Doug’s Adventures of Possible Intrigue”. It’s a chronicle of my travels, though I actually try to teach people a thing or two. The pilot episode covers Fossil Fest 2011 at the Raymond Alf Museum in Claremont, California. It’s in three sections so if got some time to kill, go check it out.

I feel a little ashamed (and not just because of my depression). I have only done two “Central Coast Living” posts. You must think this place is sucksville! Well I seek to rectify that with a nice bit of nature off Highway 101. I am talking about Johnson Ranch. It has been open to the public since 2009, but I just never got around to going there. Man was I missing out!

The property was bought by Mark Johnson, an immigrant from Denmark, and his wife Emily in 1901. They had three children and they lived at the many years after Mark died in 1916. The ranch was also home to Bellvue School, which was built in 1987. 20 to 25 students, grade 1-6, attended the one room school. It merged with another school in 1947 and moved closer to San Luis Obispo. For a short time in the 1900s a gravel quarry was opened up and operated on the ranch. All the while the Johnson family continued to live and work on the ranch. In 1981 they started renting the property to others until 2001, when the land was sold to the City of San Luis Obispo. With help from many partners, including CalTrans, the California Wildlife Conservation Board, and Bert and Candice Forbes, the city bought the land to provide refuge for wildlife as well as opening up rails for hikers and cyclists to enjoy the beautiful landscape surrounding San Luis Obispo.

Johnson Ranch is a rich setting not just for hikers but for nature buffs as well. The land teems with unique plants, including rare species of wildflowers. This is due in large part to the nature of the soil. The many rock outcrops dotting the ranch are serpentine, which has an unusual chemical composition that creates for soil for growing things. Native plants managed to adapt over millions of years. Because the soil is so harsh, the ranch was never farmed, providing native plants with a safe haven.  In the spring the hills burst with the colors of fritillary, soap plant, gold star, and many others.

A riparian woodland along Dry Creek

A patch of chapparal habitat on the side of a hill

Johnson Ranch may be small but it supports a wide variety of habitats. Dry Creek provides plenty of water for riparian (streamside) type woodland. Sweeping meadows of purple needlegrass and wild rye stop right at the doorstep of oak woodlands. Finally, because of serpentine outcrops, small patches of chaparral occur here, home to toyon, buckbrush, yucca, and mountain mahogany. This diversity of habitats allows for a diversity of wildlife. At least fifty species of birds are known to live or nest on the ranch. Remember the quarry mentioned earlier? It filled with water seeping in from Dry Creek. Cattails and willow began to grow around it. Soon enough it was another small ecosystem on the ranch. Named Forbes Pond after Bert and Candice Forbes (people whose donation helped the city buy the ranch), it has become a magnet for birds, especially elusive black-crowned night herons, who nest in trees beside the pond. Forbes pond has even become the home of a small population of native, endangered southern steelhead trout. Lizards and snakes scurry through the grass and underbrush. 15 species of mammals, from field mice and bats to deer and bobcats have been documented on the property. All this diversity is well and good, but an alien menace has found its way to Johnson ranch: feral pigs. Probable pig damage. Feral pigs (escaped captive pigs and their offspring) are not native to the Central Coast. They have no natural predators to keep their numbers in check. They compete for food with native herbivores. They cause erosion and disrupt habitats by tearing up the soil looking for roots and tubers.

Probable pig damage on the banks of Dry Creek

Despite the swine problem, Johnson Ranch is a wonderful natural treasure. I find little more soothing than the babbling of Dry Creek or the grass waving in the wind. The ranch has over four miles of hiking trails. You can walk or ride a bike, and rover can even come as long as you keep him on a leash. It is definitely worth carving out a couple hours for if you ever stop by the Central Coast. It may not have the epic forests of the Pacific Northwest or the stunning geology of Death Valley or the breathtaking beauty of Denali. But you know what? I wouldn’t trade Johnson Ranch for any of them. They may be grand in scale, but Johnson Ranch has that special charm that only the Central Coast can offer.

Till next time!

The Tragedy of Tinker

Hey there every peoples!

This post was inspired by my little debate with Brian Switek over at Dinosaur Tracking spawned by my stupid little observation. First off in my defense i did offer a suite of possibilities other than new species (Jane was a runt, Thomas may have been eating something different to gain weight faster, or they may have been different sexes). Well the reason i used those two was because they were the only ones i could get full specs on. Bucky length and height (33 feet long, 10 feet tall) matches Thomas’ but he/she has no age or weight listed. The juvenile specimen in the LA Museum’s upcoming growth series has only been described as 20 feet long (same length as Jane). And another fossil that was claimed to “have the potential to end the Nanotyrannus debate once and for all” doesn’t have any specs because of the legal tug of war he became a part of.

A commercial collector named Mark Eatman was looking for dinosaurs to whore off in the badlands of South Dakota in 1998. But the land he found the bones on was a little fuzzy; it either belonged to rancher Gary Gilbert or land that had been leased to Gilbert by South Dakota’s Harding County. Eatman only found the T. rex and had no desire to dig it out, so he sold his excavation rights to a group of fossil hunters led by Texas prospector fossil whore Ron Frithiof. Frithiof got a lease from Harding County for the rights to the fossil, so long as the county got a 10% cut. Frithiof made a deal with the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis for $8.5 million for the skeleton. That’s when the troubles began.

supposedly parts of Tinker's skull

A damaged and healed rib supposedly from Tinker

The county didn’t know the value Frithiof slapped on the fossil. So in 2003 they began litigation to rescind the lease and make the claim that Frithiof had collected the specimen illegal from federal lands. Tinker was placed in the holdings of a private preparator where the fossils sat around (with some still in the ground). The legal battle raged for years, but on August 6, 2009 an appeals court sided with Frithiof. They concluded that it was the County’s fault for not checking into what kinds of fossils were being found. They declared Frithiof’s lease valid, meaning the County will still get 10% of what Tinker gets sold for.Unfortunately this did not mean the end of Tinker’s life in purgatory. The preparator filed for bankruptcy, and the fossils were taken into the custody of a federal bankruptcy court. No new information has since come to light. I doubt any will for some time.

Anyone who knows me or has read my post on Lone Star is familiar with the utter disdain i have for commercial collectors. They are not interested in serving science or the public. They are only interested in their pocket books. Frithiof in an article for Smithsonian Magazine even admitted that he got into paleontology because he heard how much was payed for Sue and thought he too could cash in on prehistory. And to add on to the crap heap: he was going to charge a children’s museum $8.5 million for the specimen? What the hell! Where were they supposed to get that kind of money? Museums are strapped for cash as it is. The only reason The Field Museum was able to buy Sue was because they were able to make deals with Disney and McDonalds (probably the only good thing to ever come out of McDonalds). And just Like Tinker, Sue was the subject of legal disputes. And Tinker wouldn’t have as much scientific value because i doubt the guys took detailed geologic notes when digging him up (the less of that you have to do, the quicker you can get him out and sell him). Fossils need all that collateral data, as Brian Switek  so eloquently points out:

It is not paleontology’s aim to simply fill museums with the inhabitants of lost worlds or create static menageries of ancient monsters. The goal of this science is to understand prehistoric life, and this requires that we pay careful attention to the context and associations of bones. Carelessly rip a specimen out of the rocks, and you lose a world of information

Also, according to Pete Larson, the bones weren’t treated with adhesive or glue, so they are in really rought shape.

Tinker, along with other fossils like Lone Star, illustrate one of the most contentious debates today: who should and should not be allowed to excavate fossils. Unfortunately since fossils on private land are considered private property, people often let yahoos like Frithiof or Joe Taylor dig there and keep them. This is a big part of why i want to start my own museum. We need another professional entity out there to find fossils and bring them to the public trust. But that is a monumental task, and until i can get it off the ground, more fossils are either eroding away or being snatched by greedy fossil hounds. Gah!

Till next time!

The Hobbits of Indonesia

Hey there every peoples!

If you do any kind of search for information on evolution you eventually come across the raging debate surrounding our own origins. Never mind the countless myths and stories cultures have created to explain it (or the one fundies constantly try to foist on everyone else), science has plenty to debate on its own. The evolution of humans is probably one of the most difficult subjects to track in modern science. It seems that almost every bone we manage to tease out of the earth causes us to rewrite the history of early man. One anthropologist characterized the rapidly changing face of human evolution best when she said “I never give the same lecture twice”. And once in a great while a find comes along that so profoundly shakes our family tree that scientists all but draw lines in the sand. Enter “The Hobbit”.

In 2004, a team of paleoanthropologists began excavating in Liang Bua cave on the small Indonesian island of Flores. They were searching for the remains of Homo erectus, an early human ancestor known from other islands in the region. As the team dug through the layers of sediment they found the bones of giants rats, komodo dragons, and dwarf stegodons (ancient relatives of elephants). They also found many stone tools such as awls and scrappers, signs they were looking in the right place. Eventually they came across the skeleton of a small female. Due to the damp conditions it was preserved in, the skeleton had to spend a day drying. Afterwards, when the scientists were able to examine the specimen in better detail, they could not have imagined what they found.


Liang Bua cave, where remains of "The Hobbit" were uncovered. image from Wikipedia

The skeleton was not from a child as originally thought. At a mere 3 feet tall, they scientists had discovered a tiny human who bore a suite of primitive characteristics, including a brain no bigger than a chimpanzee’s. The scientists named her as a new species: Homo floresiensis. As to be expected this set off a firestorm in the press and the scientific community. Critics were quick to try and find an alternative explanation. Some dubbed the specimen as a diseased or malformed child while the tools were created by normal modern humans. Others labeled it as a pygmy modern human, which are known from the Congo. Indeed, an adult human the size of a six year old with a small brain capable of making complex tools was very hard to swallow. The debate only got more intense when remains from seven more individuals, including a complete second jawbone, were found. Could the whole population have been diseased? The controversy grew further still when the remains were dated: the stone tools associated with the diminutive humans were dated to 95,000 years ago; much more provocatively, the bones of the small woman were dated to just 18,000 years ago. Considering modern humans are thought to have reached the region by 45,000 years ago. The skeleton, nicknamed “The Hobbit” for her likeness to J.R.R Tolken’s race of hairy footed midgets, produced 2 of the most profound implications for humankind imaginable: not only was Homo capable of such diminutive size, but also that we shared the planet with another species of human so recently.


Skeleton of LB1, dubbed "The Hobbit". Image from Anthropology.net

“The Hobbit” is believed to be an example of what is known as the “island rule”. This concept states that when stranded on an island, some animals tend to shrink as a result of limited space and resources. The rule also states that other animals, with a lack of competitors or predators, will grow larger. This was already seen in the animals found alongside “the Hobbit”: on the mainland, Stegodons were the size of modern elephants, but within the confines of the small island of Flores, had shrunk to the size of a cow. An ancestral monitor species arrived in Indonesia and finding no large mammalian predators to compete with grew into the iconic Komodo dragon (same with the giant rats on Flores). This phenomenon is found throughout the world: giant bunnies in the Mediterranean, flightless birds in the Indian Ocean, and even dwarf mammoths off the coast of California (more on that in a future post). But we have always thought that we were above the rule. We thought we were far too clever and inventive to play by nature’s rules any more. If we found ourselves in a new environment, we came up with new technology to cope. Homo floresiensis suggested that even the mighty Homo had to evolve to fit its new world. As you can imagine, this notion only dumped gas on the firestorm of debate surrounding “The Hobbit” and her implications for human evolution.

The chief criticism was that “The Hobbit” was a diseased child suffering a condition called microcephale. Microcephale causes the afflicted person to have stunted growth, resulting in a small stature and more specifically a shrunken head. Since microcephale is hereditary it was contended that this could account for the other individuals. But scans of “The Hobbit’s” skull challenged this interpretation. The scan revealed a brain not like modern humans. Not only was it small, but it possessed many primitive features found in earlier human species. Also the frontal and temporal lobes were very different than those of microcephalic modern humans. The brain scan also showed that Homo floresiensis was not a pygmy since pygmies have full sized brains despite their small stature. Finally analysis of “The Hobbit’s” wrist bones also showed primitive features associated with earlier human species like Australopithecines. Homo floresiensis, it seems, was able to stand up to everything thrown at it.


Skull of Homo floresiensis compared with a microcephalic modern human. Image from Wikipedia

But if Homo floresiensis wasn’t a modern human, what was it? It was originally thought to be a descendant of Homo erectus, a well known human species thought to have reached this part of the world around 1 million years ago. Since Flores was an island even back then, it has been suggested that Homo erectus may have had some kind of primitive water craft. While experimental archaeology has shown that such a craft could be built with H. erectus technology, the idea is still controversial. “The Hobbit’s” primitive features throw a wrench into this idea. They suggest an ancestor older than erectus. Homo erectus was long thought to be the first human out of Africa. Scientists thought that everything before, even the tool making Homo habilis, were too primitive to have made the journey. This idea was shattered in 2002 when fossils at the site of Dmanisi in the Republic of Georgia turned up a species much more primitive than erectus. Originally classified as a subspecies of erectus, the creature has since been given its own species, homo georgicus. Could this creature have been the ancestor of “The Hobbit”? Only future research will tell.

Controversy continues to swirl around Homo floresiensis. Thought to have died out 13,000 years ago (possibly due to a volcanic eruption), some think “The Hobbit” may have survived into historic times. The natives of the island have stories of a creature called “Ebu Gogo” who sounds eerily similar to Homo floresiensis. According to island lore, a race of miniature human-like creatures with poor language who lived in caves. The villagers would leave out plate of food for the creatures, who would eat everything, even the plates which are made from dried pumpkins. In fact “Ebu Gogo” means “grandmother who eats anything”. One tale even tells of “Ebu Gogo” snatching a girl and taking her back to their cave and consuming her. This enraged the villigers who killed all the creatures in the cave in vengeance. Is this story based on an actual event or is it little more than tribal folklore? We may never know.

Reconstruction of Homo floresiensis with a giant rat. Image from National Geographic

Despite all the controversy “The Hobbit” continues to fire the imagination. Scientists are now combing other regions of the island in the hopes of uncovering more about this most fascinating and enigmatic branch of our family tree. And speculation has even emerged that there could be other species of dwarf humans waiting to be discovered on other islands. But “The Hobbit” has a very important lesson to teach. She teaches us that humans are not above nature. We are a part of nature. We respond to nature just as nature responds to us. I think Homo floresiensis is one of the most powerful symbols of our connection to nature. She reminds us that humans adapt to nature like any other creature we share this planet with. I hope the scientists succeed in their search and are able to tell us more about “The Hobbit”, perhaps the greatest surprise and wonder the evolution of humans will ever produce.

Till next time!