THE RED ABALONE MIDDEN PROJECT

In 1997 I obtained a National Science Foundation grant to carry out small-scale excavation at four red abalone middens.  The principal objectives of this research were to refine the chronology of red abalone middens, acquire a basic understanding of the diet of the people who created the middens and its variation between habitation sites, investigate the earlier segments of prehistory that preceded the creation of red abalone middens, and assess whether there is evidence of intensification in the use of marine food resources during the 1,000-year span of red abalone middens.  The results of the research are published in several articles and a monograph published by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

The bulk of the work occurred at the Punta Arena site (CA-SCRI-109), one of the two much larger red abalone middens, and one for which I had obtained radiocarbon dates in 1974.  My crew and I excavated two test units at this site, both placed along walls of gullies that had cut into the deposits.  Deposits at this site date between 8,700 and 2,000 years ago, but the bulk of deposits is a red abalone midden dating 6,300-5,300 years ago.  An intriguing aspect of the red abalone midden at this site is the abundance of bones of dolphins, derived from four species.  No other site on the northern Channel Islands is known to have such a high density of dolphin bones.  In addition, fish bone is in much higher density than within smaller red abalone middens, and the species represented indicate that many were acquired offshore from boats rather than from shore fishing.

Another site investigated during the Red Abalone Midden Project was CA-SCRI-549, which overlooks the north end of Christy Beach.  The site consists of a cluster of small red abalone middens buried under nearly a meter of alluvial deposits and exposed along the faces of the seacliff and gullies that bisect it.  One of the middens in this cluster lies directly on another midden stratum that dates to 6,800 years ago.  Other thin strata of midden are even deeper within the alluvial deposits, the deepest of which dates to 8,100 years ago.

The final two sites investigated, CA-SCRI-427 and CA-SCRI-429, are small middens overlooking the seacliff toward the western end of the island.  Just a 25x25 centimeter column sample was obtained from each of these.  The contents of these middens and the cluster at CA-SCRI-549 revealed that shellfish, particularly California mussel, was the most important marine food in the site inhabitants’ diet.  The meat of fish and sea mammals appear to have been minor constituents.

 

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Aerial view of the Punta Arena site

 

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A gully-wall unit at Punta Arena in process of excavation

 

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A section of a dolphin spinal column exposed on a gully wall at the Punta Arena site