Saturday, September 19, 2015

Losing Humanity's Heritage by Fire, But Not From Burning

Mt. Konocti and Clear Lake, an archaeological treasure in Central California
I read this article by Madeleine Thomas in the Pacific Standard, and it was disturbing to say the least. It discusses the looting of archaeological sites in the Clear Lake area, in part by meth addicts. It's truly sad how low some people can go on their life's journey, and meth addiction is one of the worst ways to go. One sometimes wonders if the human wreckage can ever be salvaged, and yet it should be society's highest priority to at least try.
It's the collateral damage to our heritage as human beings that saddened me so deeply as I read more of the article. Huge disastrous wildfires have now become the status quo in California as we enter our fifth year of unprecedented drought. A natural pattern intensified by global warming, the drought has left vast swaths of California brushland and forest vulnerable to fires far more intense, and far more difficult to contain. Three major fires are burning right now, in the Coast Range north of Napa (the Valley Fire), in the Mother Lode east of Jackson (the Butte Fire), and in Kings Canyon (the Rough Fire). More than 450 square miles have burned so far. Between them, the fires have killed five people, destroyed more than 1,000 homes, and we can now look forward to flooding and mudslides if the predicted El Nino weather pattern follows expectations.

The specific problem highlighted in the article is that fire scorched lands can expose archaeological sites. This can be a good thing if the land is protected and patrolled on a regular basis. In Mesa Verde National Park, fires burned something like three-quarters of the park in a decade's time, and several thousand new archaeological sites were discovered in the aftermath. In coming years, these discoveries will provide vast amounts of new information about the Ancestral Puebloan people. It's a treasure, but a protected treasure. Anyone trying to loot sites at Mesa Verde is likely to be apprehended in short order.
California Quail at Clear Lake

Archaeology in California can be far more difficult. The earliest humans in the state didn't make stone houses, so village sites are generally harder to find and assess. In the Coast Ranges and Great Valley where many early groups lived are under private ownership, and in many cases the sites have been deeply altered, for instance by agricultural and urban development.

Clear Lake, north of the Bay Area, is an interesting and little-known part of California. It is the largest natural lake in the state (Lake Tahoe is bigger, but extends into Nevada). It developed because of faulting that formed the lake basin, along with landslides and lava flows that blocked the outlet. Nearby Mt. Konocti (4,305 feet; 1,312 m) is a composite volcano composed primarily of dacite lava that erupted around 350,000 years ago, although the latest eruptions took place only 10,000 years before the present. And people might have been there to see it.

The lake is one of the more important regions for understanding the earliest inhabitants of California. There were a number of good reasons for this. The lava flows in the area provided obsidian for toolmaking. The lake was a secure source of water (and food) even in the most intense droughts. The oak woodlands provided a secure source of food, including the acorns and the animals that consumed the acorns. People have lived in the area for upwards of 11,000-12,000 years, from the end of the last major ice age when Mammoths and Sabertooth Cats still roamed the hills.
Butterfly at Clear Lake

The fires and drought have exposed archaeological sites along the lake shore and in the surrounding hills, and looters have been committing their crimes. It is a felony to plunder an archaeological site, but there is no budget to maintain patrols, and maybe no political will to deal with the underlying problems that lead people to plunder in the first place. I'm enraged that ISIS in the Middle East is systematically destroying the heritage of humanity in Syria and Iraq, but drug addicts and criminals are doing the same thing right here in my own backyard. The despoiled artifacts in the Middle East had at least been studied and documented. Here in California we'll never know what was lost. It's a crying shame.


The Field of Gold said...

Here in Central Otago New Zealand our landscape and history are so much the same. It's dry, very unusual for New Zealand, and the gold seekers came here from California bringing their skills, and many birds and plants. I just love your California Quail. Here sre some photos of ours.;postID=5658952175603920532;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=16;src=postname

Ironkowboy said...

I can personally attest to the fact that some can be salvaged: for instance, a perpetual Geology student/hobbyist, 25 years in recovery from that stuff. Sadly, out here where I live, the unsupervised ruins, burial grounds and other beautiful areas have also been badly treated - but mostly by idiots with spray paint. Even so, I don't despair; they can't go everywhere, after all, and there are many outdoor enthusiasts out and about who are more than willing to "discourage" that behavior if they witness it.
Please keep up your great work of educating!
Glendale, AZ

Garry Hayes said...

I'm so happy you were able to beat the poison! Thanks for your kind comments.