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October 2020
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Archaeologists scour the Island for answers
 By Linda Farley, Manager Conservation Operations
My job coordinating scientific research for the Conservancy allows me to access very remote, often stunningly beautiful parts of the Island. Catalina is now in a state of ecological recovery following years of overgrazing and a devastating fire. And it is encouraging to see new growth and discover new populations of rare plants, see eagles and foxes, and encounter flocks of migratory birds in the oak woodlands and grasslands.

Invariably, though, contemporary naturalists find themselves wondering what the landscape must have been like hundreds of years ago, before modern history. On Catalina 400 years ago, how was the ecosystem different, when approximately 1,000 Native Americans, the Tongva, inhabited the Island? Were the hills blanketed in spring with wildflowers, edible lilies and wild onions? What was it like to rest in the shade of an ironwood grove and feast on roasted abalone? UCLA archeologist Wendy Teeter is one who may know.


Here, Rich Zanelli, the Conservancy's School Programs Specialist, introduces youngsters to the Soapstone Quarry near the Airport in the Sky. Simply follow the Soapstone Quarry Trail, a short, easy walk, that begins at the junction of the Airport Road and El Rancho Escondido Road. Click here for the Conservancy’s Wildlands Express Airport Shuttle schedule.Photo by Richie Ponce

I had been in the field with Dr. Teeter once before; on a grueling, six-hour hike into Cottonwood Canyon in search of rock outcroppings, which had been noted 50 years ago by another researcher. The outcropping for which we were searching was comprised of soapstone, and thought to be a quarry where native Tongva people extracted rock to make bowls and grinding stones. We didn’t find the quarry that day, but, along the way, Wendy pointed out plants which were important to the Tongva culture: juncus, a remarkably prickly rush used for basketry; the cattail, edible (and good!); chia, a species of mint whose seeds were harvested and consumed, especially over long journeys, as the seeds are extremely high in energy and quench the thirst.
Last week, I joined Dr. Teeter and students from her intensive, 10-week field archaeology course, taught here on Catalina Island every summer. The course not only covers basic archaeological methods and techniques, but immerses students into the past and present lives of one of Catalina’s earliest inhabitants, the Tongva. Dr. Teeter’s approach is to examine known sites, known collectively as a “village-use area,” and addressing the connectivity between them in an attempt to understand the everyday lives of the Tongva.
We know from examining the muscle attachments on excavated human bones, that the Tongva were extremely fit and likely walked daily for long distances. They were highly mobile on the Island, using the ridgelines and canyons as traveling routes. The Tongva relied heavily on the sea for nourishment, and consumed many species of fish, pinnipeds, abalones, and other shell fish. In contrast, the mainland Tongva harvested deer and acorns from the larger oaks growing in what is now Ventura and Los Angeles Counties. It is suspected that the Tongva of Catalina traded their soapstone bowls, shell beads, and finely-crafted quartz fetishes for crops and resources from other tribes on the mainland. Ti’ats, large canoes made of redwood planks, sewn together with plant fibers, carried up to 30 people across the channel and facilitated trade.
As much as we now know about the Tongva, as a result of Wendy’s work and that of other field researchers, many unanswered questions remain about this fascinating people. Students in her field archaeology course have the exciting privilege of participating in real excavations and meeting and studying with Tongva descendents, to also learn about their ongoing culture. A special session on cooking with native plants is part of the field course curriculum. And a lecture series on the Tongva, offered to the public August 6 and 12 at the Nature Center at Avalon Canyon, should not to be missed.

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