Ancient Bones May Rewrite History
by John R. Johnson, Ph.D.
Curator of Anthropology, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
One of the outstanding discoveries made by Phil C. Orr during more than three decades of work as Curator of Anthropology and Paleontology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History was his 1959 find of three ancient human bones found buried 30 feet deep in the side wall of Arlington Canyon on Santa Rosa Island. Orr immediately recognized the importance of his find and convened a committee of renowned archaeologists to verify the stratigraphic context of the bones. Charcoal from the same stratum that contained the bones was dated to 10,000 years before present, making the skeletal remains the oldest found in North American until that time. Orr called his discovery "Arlington Springs Man."
In the years since Orr's discovery, doubt was cast on the validity of the old dates because the bones were found in an eroded stream channel and the possibility remained that they were younger than the charcoal. With foresight toward the future when improved radiocarbon-dating techniques would become available, Orr removed a block of earth that contained the bones, wrapped it in plaster, and placed it in Museum storage.
In 1989, Dr. John Johnson, Curator of Anthropology, and Don Morris, Channel Islands National Park archaeologist, initiated a project to re-evaluate the age of the Arlington Springs remains. Johnson and Chumash research assistant Gilbert Unzueta excavated a portion of femur from the block of earth and sent samples to several specialists in bone chemistry analysis and radiocarbon dating.
The result of this research demonstrated that the bones appear to be older than Orr expected, dating to approximately 13,000 years ago. Measurements taken, however, indicate that Orr had mislabeled the individual. Arlington Springs "Man" was in fact a lady!
During the end of the Pleistocene, when Arlington Springs Woman lived, the sea level was at least 150 feet lower than it is today and the Northern Channel Islands were joined as one island. This woman's presence on an island at this early date is significant, because it demonstrates that the earliest Paleo-Indians had watercraft necessary to cross the Santa Barbara Channel.
The newly-established age of the Arlington Springs Woman lends credence to the coastal migration theory that ancient peoples first entered North America by boat down the Pacific Coast from Alaska. Modern testing supports Orr's notion that this ancient lady represents the oldest human yet discovered in North America.
See San Francisco Chronicle Coverage on this topic
Channel Islands Woman May Be Oldest Yet
On-going research at Arlington Springs