QUIROSTE VALLEY AND THE VALUE OF COLLABORATIVE ARCHAEOLOGICAL RESEARCH ABOUT NATIVE HISTORY
By Rob Cuthrell, AMLT Research Associate
Ten years ago, a group of researchers led by UC Berkeley Professor Kent Lightfoot came to the Amah Mutsun Tribal Council with a novel kind of proposal. They wanted to work with the Tribe and State Parks to begin a scientific project to learn more about the long term history of relationships between Native people and the natural world at Quiroste Valley, located near Año Nuevo Point in San Mateo County. A primary goal of the project was to investigate whether Native people used prescribed burning as a stewardship method to maintain open and productive landscapes long before the arrival of Spanish colonists.
The research project would bring together many different types of academic and scientific methods in a framework we call “integrative historical ecology.” Under this approach, researchers recognize that no single method or discipline can provide a complete picture of complex human-environment relationships. So we try to understand ways of life in the past using a diversity of perspectives that can include documentary histories, oral traditions, archaeology (the study of physical materials created and used by people in the past), ecology (how animal and plant communities function and interact), and paleo-ecology (how biotic communities were structured and functioned in the past).
When researchers came to the Amah Mutsun Tribal Council with this proposal, some council members were concerned about approving the project because it was going to include archaeological excavations of an ancestral site in Quiroste Valley. For many Native tribes in California, relationships with the discipline of archaeology and its practitioners have been and continue to be difficult. Through much of the 20th century, archaeologists carried out destructive research on sacred ancestral sites and the physical remains of ancestors with little regard for the rights and perspectives of contemporary Native communities. For many Native people, their relationship with archaeology today involves monitoring the destruction of archaeological sites during construction and development activities, and reburying the remains of ancestors whose burial places have been disturbed. These difficult experiences can be deeply emotionally and spiritually challenging for those who are involved, and it is no surprise that many tribes seek to minimize the amount of archaeological work carried out.
Beginning in the 1980s, some archaeological researchers in California began pursuing new types of collaborative relationships with Native communities. The goal was for tribes to become equal partners in archaeological research, meaning research would be designed to answer questions important to the tribe, and the tribe would have final say over how the research is conducted. In our collaborative research project at Quiroste Valley, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Council approved a “low-impact” proposal for archaeological research. The plan included the use of nondestructive geophysical techniques to attempt to locate and avoid disturbing burials. These techniques also allowed researchers to target intact deposits like cooking pits and hearths, minimizing the number of excavation units needed to recover high quality information about how Native people used natural resources.
During the summers of 2007–2009, Amah Mutsun Tribe members worked with graduate and undergraduate students from UC Berkeley to conduct archaeological research at a site in Quiroste Valley. The site, which contained deposits dating from 700 to 1000 years old, may have been a settlement called “Metenne” by the Quiroste tribe. We think it was also the location where first contact was made between Quiroste people and the first Spanish expedition into California by land, led by Gaspar de Portola in 1769. The Spanish called the settlement “Casa Grande” because there was a large hemispherical dance house there, perhaps large enough to hold 200 people. Unfortunately, any portions of the site representing its history during the 18th century were probably destroyed by farming activities in the mid-1900s.
Our archaeological research at Quiroste Valley focused primarily on how Native people used plants and animals. Based on fire ecology research, we hypothesized that if Native people did not use prescribed burning to maintain open landscapes, they would have lived surrounded by woody vegetation such as shrublands and mixed conifer forests. If they burned the landscape regularly, woody vegetation would have been replaced by open coastal prairie, and the landscape may have had a more diverse mosaic of vegetation types. These expectations allowed us to make predictions about the types of plants and animals people would have used for food and fuel in each scenario. With a lack of landscape burning, we think people would have relied mostly on the types of nut and berry foods produced in forests and shrublands, such as acorns, bay nuts, huckleberries, and blackberries. Alternatively, if the landscape was dominated by coastal prairie, people could have incorporated grassland seed foods such as wild grains and seeds produced by other annual plants into their diets.
During excavations, we used a technique called flotation to recover very small animal bones and burned plant remains, some as little as half a millimeter in size. In total, our team analyzed about 50,000 plant seeds and 20,000 animal bones. The vast majority of plant seeds were from grassland seed foods, while nuts and berries made up a very small proportion of the assemblage. This suggested that people living at the site had access to extensive open grasslands from which they harvested seeds regularly. Deer and rabbit bones were the most common animal remains, but we noted that there were more burned vole bones than burned wood rat bones. Since voles live in open grasslands while wood rats live in woody vegetation types, this observation supported the view that grasslands were common in the area. We also looked at the types of wood people used as fuel in their fires, and found that most of the fuel was from redwood, and there was very little wood from Douglas fir or shrubs. This was an important finding because Douglas fir trees, which dominate the landscape today, are easily killed by fire (at least until they become quite old), but redwoods are highly resilient to fire. Each archaeological line of evidence we examined was consistent with a more open landscape and more frequent burning than we would expect to see under natural conditions.
In addition to the information we gained about prescribed burning, the archaeological research also provided insight into many other aspects of Native life 1000 years ago. For example, we found that the site contained a high diversity of marine fishes, including many bones of small schooling fish such as anchovy and herrings, highlighting the importance of net fishing at this time.
We also found that the site contained fewer bird bones than most other archaeological sites from this time period. Amah Mutsun elders have suggested that this could indicate that the people living at Metenne were part of the Bird Clan, and they may have had special prohibitions on eating birds there. Another important finding was that the site contained a relatively high number of tobacco seeds, which doesn’t naturally grow on the coast. The large amount of tobacco seeds could indicate a long history of ceremonial importance the settlement, as demonstrated in the 1700s by the dance house described by the Spanish.
In addition to the archaeological research, members of our team carried out studies of pollen and microscopic charcoal in ancient sediment layers, microscopic plant remains in soils across the landscape, fire scars hidden in the trunks of redwood trees, historical descriptions of landscape vegetation from the late 1700s, and other lines of evidence. Considered together, most lines of evidence indicated more open landscapes with more frequent fire during the last several hundred years to about 1000 years ago in the area. Our research team published our results in the journal California Archaeology in 2013. Since then, AMLT has been using the outcomes of the research project to guide decisions about revitalizing traditional stewardship practices at Quiroste Valley Cultural Preserve.
The landscape of Quiroste Valley now looks much different than it did when Native people tended it. For the last 35 years, State Parks has managed the land as a wilderness area, and much of the former fields and prairies have been overtaken by coyote brush shrubland and Douglas fir forest. One of the first stewardship activities AMLT conducted at Quiroste Valley in spring of 2014 involved removing shrubs that were invading prairies and shading out native bunchgrasses such as purple needlegrass, California oatgrass, and others. Our archaeological research at Quiroste Valley indicated that the annual plant coast tarweed was an important seed food 1000 years ago. Today there is a robust population of coast tarweed on the Quiroste Valley floor, but it is heavily invaded by the exotic and highly toxic poison hemlock plant, which makes it unsafe to harvest tarweed seeds. Since summer 2015, AMLT Native Stewards have been working to reduce the number of poison hemlock plants so that the tarweed can be safely harvested again.
Today, AMLT is continuing to collaborate with researchers to improve our understanding of Native people and the deep history of their relationship to the natural world. We hope that our new investigations in Santa Cruz County will provide information about these relationships in the period before 1000 years ago, as well as help us to understand how Native stewardship was carried out across the broader coastal region. Our great hope is that the research project at Quiroste Valley will serve as a model for future collaborative projects to revitalize Native stewardship throughout Amah Mutsun territory and elsewhere in California.