Channel Islands find challenges where first Americans came from

March 8, 2011 -- Some of North America's first inhabitants, who lived 12,000 years ago in the California Channel Islands, dined on a diverse diet of geese, cormorants, fish and seafood, according to new archeological finds. Until recently, little was known about how these peoples survived and found food. But new evidence, unearthed by a team of researchers that included lecturer Brian Fulfrost, suggests that ancient Channel Islanders were expert tool-makers who made a living from the sea. In addition, the shape of the tools discovered calls into question long-held theories about where the first Americans came from.

A map showing where Channel Islands' shoreline would have been 12,000 years ago, and showing the current position of San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz islands.

Brian Fulfrost's reconstruction of where the Channel Islands' shoreline would have been 12,000 years ago (shaded, tan brown area) when the archipelago was connected as one large island. L – R: islands include San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz. Credit: Brian Fulfrost

Reporting in the journal Science, the researchers describe the discovery of scores of stone artifacts and dozens of dumping grounds, containing the discarded bones and shells from meals eaten thousands of years ago. These found artifacts suggest that the earliest islanders were skilled hunters and fishermen, using carefully carved rocky tools to capture waterfowl and seals, spear fish and crack open shellfish.

A three-sided view of a small stone, crescent-shaped tool that ancient dwellers of the Channel Islands may have used to hunt birds.

A three-sided view of a chert crescent, one of the tools found on San Miguel Island in the Channel Islands, which ancient sea-farers may have used to hunt birds. Credit: Courtesy of Jon Erlandson

The study's authors suggest that the sophisticated knife-like tools  they found seem unlikely to be descended from the Clovis culture, a land-based group that is generally regarded as the first human inhabitants of the New World. This finding adds to a growing body of evidence challenging the dominant "Clovis first" theory, popular since the 1930s, which claims that the Clovis people were the first inhabitants to settle the American continent.

To aid the discovery of these artifacts, Fulfrost, a lecturer in SF State's Geographic Information Systems certificate program, created reconstructions of the Channel Islands coastline as it would have been 12,000 years ago. At that time, sea levels were 50-60 meters lower than present day and the current archipelago would have been connected as one large island.

Fulfrost is an expert on Geographic Information Systems, tools which combine database technology with cartography and statistical analysis. Using this technology, Fulfrost and colleagues Jack Watts and Jon Erlandson, have devised a model that helps pinpoint key locations where evidence of maritime adaptation might be found. The model informed the efforts of the research team's anthropologists and archeologists as they conducted excavations on the Channel Islands. 

"Our suitability model looks at the geography of the islands and identifies a suite of prime locations where evidence for maritime adaptation is likely to be found," Fulfrost said. "We plug in variables, such as distances to the coastline, habitation sites or fresh water sources and distance to food sources, such as kelp forests, intertidal zones and seals' calving grounds. The model helps us assess where it would make sense for these humans to live and process their food."

"Paleoindian Seafaring, Maritime Technologies, and Coastal Foraging on California's Channel Islands," was published in the March 3, 2011, issue of Science. The paper was co-authored by SF State Lecturer Brian Fulfrost and the research was led by Jon M. Erlandson of the University of Oregon.

-- Elaine Bible