The Museum, Arlington Man, and the Mammoth

Every time I visit the Museum I am drawn to the Geology Hall to view the pygmy mammoth excavated on Santa Rosa Island in 1994. In particular I check to see that the NPS ball cap featured as part of that exhibit is still in good shape. You see, that is my ball cap, residing in the exhibit by virtue of my good fortune in forming part of the excavation team.

How that came to be goes back to 1982, when I was asked to join a National Park Service team studying the resources of Santa Rosa Island as negotiations were underway for its eventual purchase and incorporation into Channel Islands National Park. Flying to the island in December, the team met and planned its work. First on my “to do” list was to visit Arlington Canyon and find SRI-173, the Arlington Man Site, discovered and reported in Phil Orr's (SBMNH archaeologist) seminal publication, Prehistory of Santa Rosa Island. As I studied the canyon and the site, I began to realize the vast potential of the island for new research.

Later in the trip, the ranch foreman, Bill Wallace, volunteered to show me an interesting burial. Bill was absolutely correct. I collected materials for dating an interment that seemed rather old, submitting the same for use in new dating techniques.

Time passed, but in 1986, now ensconced as the very first Park Archaeologist at Channel islands, I received a letter informing me that the burial was the earliest known in California (at that time). I immediately recalled the Arlington Man, thought to be even earlier, but whose status was not readily accepted because of the dating techniques in use during the 1960s.

I promptly trekked to the Museum and introduced myself to the new Curator of Anthropology, John Johnson, inquiring about the whereabouts of the Arlington Man, and suggesting that AMS might give us a solid date on what is surely very old material. John checked around and found that there was a large plaster cast deep in Museum storage, inscribed with “Arlington.”

We ventured into a cavernous storage area so dark and dim that torches from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” would have been handy, found the plaster cast, and hauled it into John's office. Upon opening, we obviously were faced with some of the bones of the Arlington Man, still residing in unexcavated matrix. Phil Orr's forbearance and caution presented us with the opportunity to study the material in the Museum, and the site on the island, with new techniques and an intensity unavailable in Orr's time.

Work began, including detailed study of the geological matrix at SRI-173 by Thomas Rockwell. I was on Santa Rosa Island in June 1994, and we were deciding upon our activites for the day. Tom wanted to look at sea terraces for purposes of dating and correlation with the Arlington stratigraphy, and I wanted to examine a cave near Carrington Point for potential archaeology. That was a good location for Tom's purposes, so off we went. I was finishing an unprodutive exploration of the cave when I was told that Tom had just found what he thought was a complete pygmy mammoth skeleton. He wondered if we had very many of those. I replied that as far as I knew, this was a unique specimen if indeed it was a pygmy mammoth.

We engaged an expert, Larry Agenbroad of Northern Arizona University and the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Agenbroad's immortal words, “yep, it's a mammoth,” sparked an intense summer of excavation, highlighted by overwhelming public interest.

Today, casts of the mammoth are shown at the NPS Visitor Center, the Mammoth Site, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History (the best exhibit of all because it contains my official NPS ball cap worn during the dig).

Dating of the mammoth determined that it lived 12,800 years ago, making it slightly younger than Arlington Man (or Woman – opinions have differed), currently dated at 13,100 years ago, still I believe, the oldest human remains from North America. Work by the Museum has continued at the Arlington Site, as have investigations of pygmy mammoth material by the Mammoth Site, all coordinated by the NPS.

Far from ending, archaeological and paleontological investigations of Santa Rosa Island and the other Channel Islands are entering a new and productive phase, as the NPS and the Santa Barbara Museum work together to understand important past events. Perhaps it is not coincidental that both institutions celebrate their centennials in 2016, as fans of both institutions look forward to continuing and productive collaboration.