Dr. Jon Erlandson

Dr. Jon Erlandson
Dr. Jon Erlandson

Chapter 9

Dr. Jon Erlandson, Professor of Anthropology, University of Oregon, describes his 2009 discovery of a cache of artifacts on San Nicolas Island.

Every time I go to the Channel Islands it seems like I find something that knocks my socks off. Finding a cache of redwood boxes on San Nicolas Island may be the most amazing of all.

This was a totally unexpected discovery. I was looking for ancient campsites along the coast, looking at old soils buried below younger sand dunes. I was walking along the edge of an eroding sea cliff and was in the right place at the right time.

I looked down and saw a whale rib sticking out of a fossil beach. Thinking the bone was a fossil I climbed down to have a look and was astounded to find an old redwood box buried under the long curved whale rib.

One side of the box had fallen off and when I looked inside I saw something shiny and picked out a piece of old green bottle glass. Then I picked out a soapstone bead, a brass button, and a carved soapstone effigy. Then I slapped myself on the head, thinking “You idiot, stop pulling things out of the box!”

I found my colleagues, and we changed our plans for the last 24 hours of our trip. The importance of the discovery was clear and the next big storm would have washed it into the ocean.

The next day, working on a narrow ledge above a steep sea cliff, we uncovered two old redwood boxes of classic Channel Islands construction, probably made from recycled canoe planks glued together with tar (asphaltum). Just outside the boxes, we found the remnants of several woven water bottles sealed with asphaltum.

The vast majority of the nearly 200 artifacts found in the two redwood boxes were probably made by Nicoleño people, including several arrowheads chipped from historic glass. I think the boxes were filled with tools, artifacts, and raw materials meant to be used later.

Who left them behind? We may never be able to answer that question definitively, but the age of the boxes suggests that it may well have been Juana María.

Last updated: December 13, 2018