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From the Magazine: Prof. Jennifer Perry Explores Offshore Treasures in the Channel Islands

Associate Professor of Anthropology Jennifer Perry on Santa Cruz Island / Photo by Steve Osman, Pro Photography Network

Associate Professor of Anthropology Jennifer Perry on Santa Cruz Island / Photo by Steve Osman, Pro Photography Network

Associate Professor Anthropology Jennifer Perry works in Hahn.

Associate Professor Anthropology Jennifer Perry works in Hahn / Photo by John Lucas

Map of the Channel Islands

Jennifer Perry leads the way up a winding path from the ocean’s edge to a bluff high enough to reveal the currents in the sparkling-blue Santa Barbara Channel. It’s distracting for a newcomer, the brown Santa Monica Mountains looming across the water to the east, Ventura perched on the shore further up the coast, and a scattering of freighters and small boats moving slowly in between, their wakes leaving long “v”s in the water.

Perry, who has spent more time than she can tally on Santa Cruz Island, barely stops to absorb the view. Something else has caught her attention—a new and unsanctioned hiking trail along the bluff’s edge. “This isn’t supposed to be here,” Perry says as she hurries along the illicit path, which takes her where she feared it might--directly past the cliff-top remains of an ancient native Chumash settlement and midden, a site Perry thought was known only to herself and a few other anthropologists.

Such is the risk of opening the past to the present.

Perry, associate professor and chair of Pomona College’s Anthropology Department, has devoted more than a decade to finding and exploring ancient settlements on the Channel Islands, the string of eight mostly uninhabited pearls off the California coast. Five of those pearls form the Channel Islands National Park, established in 1981 after decades of efforts by preservationists and naturalists to spare Santa Cruz and her sister islands from developers keen to build vacationers’ subdivisions, condos and golf courses. Since then, the national park has expanded--the eastern end of Santa Cruz was finally acquired in 1996--and that island has become the most-visited of the five in the park, a function primarily of accessibility. In 2009, Santa Cruz had 91,000 visitors, more than traveled the other four islands combined.

Perry, who studies a time thousands of years ago when the islands were home to a complex civilization of hunter-gatherers, today works in an atmosphere in which the islands are flourishing in a new way, valued for the absence of the crowded civilization on the mainland. The creation and expansion of the national park have opened the way to a new wave of preservation and restoration efforts--and made it easier for researchers such as Perry to explore ancient sites on the islands. But the changes also bring the inevitable struggle to restore the islands while also making them accessible to the public.

The influx of visitors has led to “impacts,” Perry says, such as well-meaning explorers carrying relics from their finding spot to the ranger station, which destroys archeologists’ ability to process the relics properly. But concerns over looting, she says, have actually decreased. When the land was privately owned, there were no safeguards in place.

“At least now we can argue that there’s some kind of management policy, and that there’s a way to enforce it,” Perry says. “Now if somebody were to loot, they’d be subject to federal laws relating to archeological resources, and be prosecuted.”

Pomona College Magazine

PERRY MOVES ALONG the bluff-top, with the sure-footedness of someone who knows the terrain intimately. She follows the illicit path to within a few feet of the midden, and to see whether the site has been looted she leans precariously over the cliff edge, hundreds of feet above crashing waves. It is not a task for those prone to vertigo. Perry is pleased to find the site intact, and unmolested, and makes a mental note to let the park archaeologish know so the path could be sealed off.

She moves on to another bluff overlooking a small secondary island, where cormorants and other sea birds sunned themselves. Then she cuts inland, talking all the time about the nature of the Chumash lives here on Santa Cruz, and about the efforts to restore the island to native species, both plants and animals.

Working on the eastern end of Santa Cruz Island, Perry has been exploring “how the terrestrial resources of the island were being used and more generally why people were living at interior sites,” says Michael Glassow, professor emeritus from UC Santa Barbara. Perry discovered archeological sites dating back 8,000 years—far earlier than others had anticipated, and her work is helping to change the way archeologists view how the Chumash lived. More than simple seafarers, they formed a complex society that became, in effect, the hub of a pre- Columbian regional economy.

“She is the first one to clearly recognize this temporal pattern, and I’m beginning to see the same pattern where I work in the western sector of the island,” says Glassow, who himself is an expert on island cultures and served as Perry’s dissertation advisor.

In the process, Perry, 36, has added to contemporary understanding of the role the Chumash played as pre-Columbian merchants, using the chert—a flintlike substance—on Santa Cruz to make tools used to carve currency from Olivella shells gathered from a beach on the far side of the island. In a sense, she says, the Chumash turned Santa Cruz into a mint.

Perry believes the Chumash evolved into a complex society of hunter-gatherers who also traded with other tribes. Over time they used their access to chert to develop primitive micro drills, and then used the drills to mark olivella shells as the basis of a primitive monetary system that, among other things, allowed the most powerful of the Chumash to amass wealth.

It was Glassow who steered Perry, then a student at UC Santa Barbara, to the Chumash and their past on the northern Channel Islands. But it was her own upbringing in a small desert town that propelled her, improbably, to the sea.

Perry grew up in Borrego Springs, a small northern San Diego County town surrounded by the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which she likens to Santa Cruz Island.

“You can have these land-locked islands, and I grew up essentially on an island in the middle of the state park,” Perry says. “Really it’s all part of the same thing to me because they’re both islands. I feel similarly about them. … In both cases there’s just a tremendous amount of endemic species and endangered or threatened species, and you can learn a lot about these really interesting and dynamic ecosystems that characterize Southern California.”

As an undergraduate at the University of San Diego in 1992 she took an archeological field class on San Clemente Island, which is controlled by the U.S. Navy and has scant visitors.

“I was hooked,” she says. “This resonates with me so much, as far as the landscape being remote, the ability to really know that landscape and know its resources and just really feeling like I fit in.”

AFTER A PACKED LUNCH in a stand of pines, Perry walks to a series of mounds of loose rocks, packed so thick that grass has trouble taking root. These are ancient mine tailings, she says, history hidden in plain view. She picks up pieces of chert, the remnants, she believes, of the ancient tool making—the bit of rock chipped away to make sharp edge and sharp points on knives, arrowheads and other objects ancient artisans carried off with them. And round, fist-sized stones with scars are makeshift hammers from thousands of years ago.

Every item, it seems, has a story behind it. “If you look on this edge,” she says, turning a mottled-gray stone over in her hand, “you’ll see it’s battered and then this right here is a piece of this rock flaked off. So this is a little hammer stone.” She talks about the process of chipping chert, a skill she learned herself from craftsmen to better understand the flakes she finds in the quarries. She picks up slivers of stone. “They probably were going after maybe a bigger flake to make a small point out of,” Perry says.

But it’s the hammer stones she finds most intriguing. “You find them in every single one of these mine pits,” she says. “You know it happened right here. That’s one of the most beautiful moments of archeology, when you pick up something and you know you’re the next person to pick it up” after the original artisan.

Yet the growing accessibility of the islands creates more opportunities to disrupt those millennium-crossing moments between archeologist and artisan. The first year Santa Cruz was open to visitors, Perry says, there would only be two or three people using the main campground on a Saturday night. “If you come out today anytime between Memorial Day and Labor Day on a Saturday night, the campground is going to be full with over 200 people, and there will probably be an additional 200 people exploring,” Perry says. “So that’s a dramatic increase.”

Perry acknowledges the island “could be loved to death,” citing the overcrowding at popular national parks on the mainland. But more visitors could, counter-intuitively as it may seem, lead to greater protections.

“The more people who are aware of it, and appreciate the islands, the greater concern there is for the natural environment,” Perry says. “It’s something tangible to them…. It’s worth taking that risk to communicate to people the importance of these kinds of endeavors.”

And, truth to be told, Santa Cruz will never be Yosemite. The National Park Service limits the number of visitors on the islands, which are accessible only by boat, another limiting factor. The trip from Ventura takes about an hour, and blustery days can make for a rough passage. Unlike Catalina, the most populated and best known of the Channel Islands, there are limited services on Santa Cruz--outhouses and campsites are about it. It’s not as remote as the Sierra back country, but with a couple of dozen miles of water separating visitors from the mainland, it might as well be.

“The size of the island makes it easy to escape even a busy weekend crowd by hiking into the back country, and the lack of amenities and the need for a boat trip will always limit the visitors to those who are serious about the outdoors,” says Peter Warden, a British-born computer programmer now living in Los Angeles, who has camped on Santa Cruz. “Having said that, I was camping overnight a few years ago when the rangers had to confiscate a video karaoke system and generator from some fellow campers.”

Rangers try to mitigate the effects of visitors on the park, beginning with a mandatory briefing on park policies as visitors alight from the boat, says Yvonne Menard, spokesperson for Channel Islands National Park. Among the no-nos: Removing items from the island, and leaving trash behind. Bulletin boards and information displays on the island reinforce the message.

But it’s not as though the islands are pristine paradises. Humans have lived here, and used the islands, for thousands of years. In recent decades, Santa Cruz was over-run by wild pigs and sheep (former farm animals), which caused deep damage to archeological sites and native species. Meanwhile, golden eagles moved into the islands after DDT eradicated the bald eagles. It was the difference between life and death for the native island fox species. Golden eagles eat the isolated relatives of the mainland gray foxes; bald eagles did not.

In the 1980s and 1990s, those invasive animals were systematically removed--some of the wild pigs by professional riflemen firing from helicopters-- and the island has been recovering at a much faster pace than experts anticipated, Perry says. Bald eagles have been re-established, too, and they have pushed out many of the golden eagles, helping the island foxes recover.

Despite the relative fragility of the recovery, Perry, for one, is encouraged, and thinks the right balance has been struck among restoration, preservation and public access. She compares Santa Cruz and the other islands with park sites on the mainland—and thinks the islands win.

“These islands are far more protected and I think the greater the awareness is of the islands being here, the greater concern there is for ongoing protection,” Perry says.

THE DAY’S END HELPS make her point about the island’s relative protection.

After tromping around the northeast corner of the island for four hours--the basic range for day-trippers--Perry has to leave the chert quarry to begin making her way to the boat landing for the trip back to the mainland. You can’t wander too deeply into the island for fear of missing the return boat--and there is no late boat. If you’re not on the afternoon departure, you’re suddenly camping overnight, without food or gear.

On the way back, Perry detours to a spot where she led an archeological dig a few years ago. At first she can’t find the site, which is as it should be. The idea is to explore and learn about the past with minimal disruption.

As she walks, Perry talks more about the history of the islands, about Santa Cruz specifically, about the lifestyles of the Chumash. She stops suddenly as a small furry head pops up from the grassland about 50 feet ahead. It’s an island fox, and it eyes her warily for a few seconds before moving on, gliding through the grass then disappearing over a small ridge, safe in its moment.

And that, too, is at it should be.

The Channel Islands

For modern Californians, the Channel Islands can be the stuff of daydreams, a chance to get away from the choking sprawl of Southern California and touch the past. From the mainland, the islands seem to float on the horizon, brown ridges obscuring the vastness of the Pacific Ocean beyond.

The Channel Islands National Park covers all or portions of Santa Barbara Island, the smallest at one square mile; Santa Rosa; San Miguel; Anacapa and Santa Cruz, the largest of the islands at 98 square miles. It also has the highest point in the islands, Devils Peak, at 2,450 feet. But only a quarter of the island lies in the park; the rest is controlled by the Nature Conservancy.

Three of the Channel Islands are not part of the national park. San Clemente, the southernmost off San Diego, and San Nicholas, the most remote, are controlled by the U.S. Navy. Catalina is the best known, with its party village of Avalon, though nearly all of the rest of the island is controlled by the Catalina Island Conservancy.

Making Currency

Some 1,000 years ago, the Channel Islands were an important center for making the shell-bead currency used in much of Southern California at the time. From the storeroom in Pomona’s Hahn Building, Anthropology Professor Jennifer Perry shows the evidence of the different stages the Chumash Indians used to make olivella shell beads on Santa Cruz Island. The top row in the photo at right shows the shells before work begins. Then the Chumash used stone tools to break the shells into more workable fragments, as seen in the second row from the top. Next they drilled and abraded the shells until the exterior was perfect, as seen in the bead at the bottom.