Explore 13,000 years of human history on this remote California island


Surrounded by aquamarine waters, Santa Rosa Island is a pleated landscape of canyons, mountains, and hanging sea cliffs. But there is more than meets the eye. Archaeological intrigue lingers on this arid island, California’s second largest Channel Islands National Park.

While digging in the Arlington Canyon on the island in 1959, archaeologist Phillip Orr discovered two femurs which he suspected came back to the end Pleistocene and brought them back to the mainland. That alone was not unique. Orr has conducted fieldwork on windswept Santa Rosa for more than two decades. During his numerous expeditions, he excavated Chumash villages, numerous tombs, mounds (or heaps of archaeological waste), as well as the large bones of pygmy mammoths, which roamed the island 10,000 years ago.

But nearly 40 years after its discovery in 1959, John R. Johnson, Orr’s successor at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, determined that the bones were over 13,000 years old, making them the oldest known human remains in North America.

The Arlington Springs Man, as the bones were called, supports the theory of a coastal migration of early people from Northeast Asia to the Americas. “We now have a better appreciation of the diversity of ways of life 13,000 years ago – not all of them were Clovis Hunters“, adds Johnson, referring to the first people who migrated via the Bering Land Bridge and hunted mammoths.

The parents of today’s Chumash were not only skilled boat makers, they were expert basket weavers and fishermen who built thriving villages throughout the region, overseen by leading men and women in a society matrilineal. Astronomers and storytellers, their connection to the environment can be seen today in pictographs at places like Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park near Santa Barbara.

A trip to Santa Rosa Island, where unique flora and fauna are traversed by hiking trails, provides a vivid understanding of not only the deep history and culture of the region, but also the history North American. Here’s why you should go.

The Chumash culture of California

Before the arrival of Gaspar de PortolaIn the overland expedition of 1769, the population of Chumash in California was estimated at around 22,000. Their territory extended 7,000 miles from Malibu to Paso Robles and included four of the five Channel Islands: Tuqan (Island of San Miguel), Wi’ma (Santa Rosa Island), Limuw (Santa Cruz) and Anyapakh (Anacapa Island). In the 1810s, those Chumash who did not perish from introduced European epidemics, such as measles, were forcibly removed from the islands and placed in Spanish missions.

Today there are 14 bands of Chumash Indians, including federally recognized bands Santa Ynez Band. Many other bands are seeking federal recognition. “We are a diverse group of people speaking seven distinct languages,” says Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, former Tribal Chairperson of the Band of Indians from the Barbeño/Ventureño Mission, whose family tree spans Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands, Malibu and Carpinteria. She says going to the islands is like coming home.

At Channel Islands National Park, Tumamait-Stenslie educates campers about Chumash culture around campfires during the summer (contact the visitor center for a schedule). “We have the story of Rainbow Bridge, in which we were created on Santa Cruz Island and crossed to the mainland.” These tales center on the Earth God, Hutash, who created people from the seeds of the magic plant, and her husband, Alchupo’osh., the celestial serpent, also known as the milky way.

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Tumamait-Stenslie suggests viewing the island as a natural history museum to understand the relationship of the Chumash (and their ancestors) to the landscape. During her visits, she often thinks of the ingenuity of her ancestors, how they used seagrass, willows and animal parts to build domed huts to protect themselves from the elements. “[Imagine] walk through the door of your house which happened to be the jawbone of a great blue whale,” she said.

The Chumash Indian Museum, in Thousands Oaks, California, (a 30-minute drive from Port of Ventura), offers more information about the Chumash history of the area, with replicas of traditional villages and a ethnobotany garden.

“It’s so important to remind people that the Chumash people are still here,” Barbara Tejada, board chair and acting director, says of the museum’s programs. A recent event focusing on the annual report Crossing the Santa Barbara Canalfrom the mainland to Santa Cruz Island Scorpion Beachin tomolslarge traditional canoes built of hardwood and sealed with tar.

(New England’s 740-mile canoe trail is an epic journey through history.)

“There have been replica canoes that were built by the modern Chumash community. They practice paddles along the coast of Santa Barbara in the summer and the annual crossing in September,” says Tejada. “It shows the important transportation link between the mainland and the islands, and it really helps preserve canoeing in maritime Indigenous cultures today.”

How to Explore Santa Rosa Island

Since it’s located 26 miles off mainland California, getting to Santa Rosa Island is half the adventure. Most visitors take a three-hour boat ride on Island Packers Cruises from the port of Ventura, the official boat concessionaire of the national park. Reservations (some of which are seasonal) can fill up quickly, especially for overnight trips, so plan ahead. Boaters may visit by private craft, but must check approved landing areas and allow information about NPS nautical guide.

“The trip itself is fabulous,” Tumamait-Stenslie says of the Santa Barbara Canal crossing. “You may encounter whales, sea lions and common dolphins at the bow.” Bird watchers will find abundant bird life, including California brown pelicans, Cassin’s Auklet, Brandt’s cormorantsand Scripps’ Guillemots.

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On the island, trails wind through a rare forest of Torrey pines (one of two remaining in the world) and endangered species fields soft leaf brush. Look for the endemic Santa Rosa Island Fox, spotted skunks, pinnipedsand other bird colonies, such as snowy plovers.

Although day trips to Santa Rosa are possible, Tumamait-Stenslie recommends staying overnight to experience the island as the Chumash and their ancestors did, in near silence with sweeping views of the Milky Way. in the night sky. The island’s only campground with 15 sites is accessible via a mile-and-a-half hike from the pier. Bookings go fast, so book a few months on the park reservation site. Backpackers and experienced kayakers can try outback beach camping from August through December, but should check weather conditions before heading out.

“People ask me all the time, ‘How is it to be in your home country?'” Tumamait-Stenslie says. “I tell them, go home. And I don’t mean [someplace like] Chicago, but somewhere across the ocean, and walk these lands. Because there is a genetic memory that suddenly reminds you of your ancestors. You start thinking about your name and its origin.

Miles W. Griffis is a freelance journalist and writer based in Los Angeles, California. He wrote for High Country Newsthe New York Times, vogue, and many more. Follow him on instagram and Twitter.
Alex Krowiak is a San Diego-based photographer and instructor with Lindblad Expeditions & National Geographic. Follow him on instagram.
Hike with us: On the way to the great outdoors? We can help. National Geographic Illustrated Trail Maps highlight the best places for hiking, camping, boating, paddling, and wildlife viewing in the scenic and rugged frontiers and urban fringes of North America. Created in partnership with local land management agencies, these expertly researched maps provide unparalleled detail and useful information to guide experienced outdoor enthusiasts and casual visitors alike. Click here for a Channel Islands National Park trail map.


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