Analysis: The Tongva people of Catalina Island hunted sea lions 1,000 years ago | UCSB
From the 1950s to the 1990s, archaeologists excavated a number of sites on Santa Catalina Island and packaged thousands of artifacts. And there they sat, for the most part unanalyzed, for decades. Some 50 years later, Hugh Radde thought they could say something about the Tongva people who had inhabited the island for millennia.
Male, Puppies and Females at Seal Rocks Colony on Catalina Island, c. 1897-1905. (University of Southern California Libraries and California Historical Society)
He was right. After years of sifting and analyzing some 16,000 bones of Catalina’s West End, the graduate student in the anthropology department at UC Santa Barbara concluded that the Tongva had been operating a sea lion colony in California until now. there unknown, practiced sustainable hunting and used plank canoes to transport meat and other commodities.
Radde’s paper appears in the journal Quaternary International.
Radde’s comprehensive work over four years tells us more about human culture and livelihood strategies, he said, and provides invaluable data for laying the ecological foundations of past environments.
“The skeletal remains from the West End site document what animals lived and thrived on the island around 1,000 years ago,” he said. “Sometimes these datasets offer new information about ecosystems from the past that are no longer present today. For example, the geographic distribution of where fur seals and sea lions breed and live is very different today than it was in the past.
“Zooarchaeology is an extremely important source of information not only for anthropologists, but also for conservation biologists and environmental scientists.”
Humans have hunted pinnipeds, the group of marine mammals that include sea lions and seals, for millennia; some researchers believe that the first migrants to North America drove them away 13,000 years ago.
Indeed, as Radde noted, predation of pinnipeds has been so widespread that data from archaeological sites suggests that they behave differently today than in the past, moving their rookeries (where they are born and raise their young ) and their feeding areas.
For Radde, Catalina’s artifacts from the Late Holocene study site (around 1315-570 BC, or BP) presented a huge challenge.
“The density of marine mammal remains was the first surprise,” he said. “Regional archaeologists had already established baselines for important hunting sites based on the density of animal bones. In general, these assemblies are rare. Once I realized I was on my knees in a collection characterized by this, I delved into the literature on pinniped hunting among hunter-gatherer-fishermen.
He analyzed the majority of artifacts at UCSB’s Faunal Lab, sorting the thousands of bones by species and, for pinnipeds, determining sex and approximate age at the time of death. Among the mammalian bones, the California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) were the most numerous.
Of those identified by sex, 75% were males, suggesting that the Tongva hunted in rookeries, where adult males stay on the shore to defend their territory and hatchlings helpless.
Significantly, about 63% of the bones of otariids (ear seals) belonged to subadults. As Radde notes, sub-adults congregate at haul-outs, areas outside of rookeries where large numbers of pinnipeds congregate. Native hunters practiced sustainable hunting, he says, because the capture of subadults “does not have a drastic impact on future generations.”
Also, he said, the distribution of the bones strongly suggests that the Tongva carried smaller parts of males, like limbs and fins; males could weigh over 800 pounds. On the other hand, Radde documented more complete remains of females (around 240 pounds) and subadults, suggesting that their smaller size allowed hunters to carry more of their parts.
Radde’s analysis of the West End collection also has implications for the role of the plank canoe in pinniped hunting. He notes that Lynn Gamble of UCSB, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, argued that the plank boat was in use at 1250 BP, which coincides with the human occupation of the Catalina site. Similar sites in the Channel Islands have also been linked to advanced personal watercraft, he said.
“Therefore,” he writes, “I believe that the assemblage studied here might provide information on how canoes were originally used to facilitate pinniped hunting, indirectly documenting the occurrence of this technology in new areas and assess the impact of personal watercraft technology on the behavior and spatial distribution of ancient pinniped populations. “