The past through the pinnipeds | UCSB current
From the 1950s to the 1990s, archaeologists excavated a number of sites on Santa Catalina Island and boxed thousands of artifacts. And there they sat, for the most part unanalyzed, for decades. Some 50 years later, Hugues Radde thought they could say something about the Tongva people who have inhabited the island for millennia.
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 was exploiting an unknown colony of sea lions in California, hunted sustainably and used plank canoes to transport meat and other goods.
His paper appears in the journal Quaternary International.
Radde’s comprehensive four-year work tells us more about human culture and livelihood strategies, he said, and provides invaluable data for establishing 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 insights into past ecosystems 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. Zoological archeology 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 about 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, the Catalina artifacts from the Late Holocene study site (around 1315-570 BC, or BP) presented a huge challenge.
“The sheer 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 knee deep in a collection characterized by this, I delved into the literature on pinniped hunting among hunter-gatherer-fishermen.
He analyzed the majority of artefacts in 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 remain ashore to defend their territory and newborn puppies helpless.
Significantly, some 63% of the bones of otariids (ear seals) belonged to subadults. As Radde notes, subadults congregate in haul-outs, areas outside of rookeries where large numbers of pinnipeds congregate. Native hunters practiced sustainable hunting, he says, because taking subadults “has no drastic impact on future generations.”
Additionally, he said, the distribution of the bones strongly suggests that the Tongva carried smaller parts of males, such as limbs and fins; males could weigh over 800 pounds. On the flip side, 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 paddleboat in pinniped hunting. He notes that Lynn Gamble of UCSB, professor emeritus of anthropology, argued that the plank canoe was in use around 1250 BP, which coincides with the human occupation of the Catalina site. Similar sites in the Channel Islands have also been linked to advanced craft, he said.
“Therefore,” he writes, “I think the assemblage under consideration here might provide information on how canoes were originally used to facilitate pinniped hunting, indirectly documenting the emergence of this technology. in new areas, as well as to assess the impact of boat technology on the behavior and spatial distribution of ancient pinniped populations.