10,000-Year-Old Ancient American Castaway Revealed…and Finally Laid to Rest
10,000 years ago, an old man was buried beneath rocks on a coastal Pacific island and only now have his ancient origins finally been settled. In 2005 researchers from the University of Oregon discovered a bone poking through dirt and old seashells and from the moment they saw it “were certain that it was a human skull” said archaeologist Jon Erlandson to reporters at the Ventura County Star. Finally, after 10,000 (and a further 13 years) the ancient man's relatives have laid him to rest.
Erlandson and a graduate student had been surveying an ancient site in Channel Islands National Park which had previously indicated that people had camped on San Miguel Island, about 70 miles (112.5km) off Ventura, around 9,600 years ago. They discovered a bone protruding through the soil and tried to cover it up to protect it as it was potentially among some of the “earliest human remains in North America.”
Map of Southern California — with the Channel Islands identified. ( Public Domain )
Archaeologist Erlandson reported the find to the National Park Service who in turn took the information to a Chumash tribe, who claim ancestral heritage with the northern Channel Islands. Kenneth Kahn, tribal chairman for the federally recognized Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, told reporters at the Ventura County Star “From one perspective, this is a discovery,” yet “From another, this is our ancestor.”
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Chumash art on the walls of Painted Cave in the mountains above Santa Barbara. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The Chumash agreed to the excavation and study of “Tuqan Man” but instead of the operation taking a few months it took close to 12 years! “For us” said Khan “there was never any doubt” that Tuqan Man was an ancestor but permitting his remains to be taken off the island took time. Laura Kirn, cultural resources chief for the park told reporters:
“I think the assumption at the time was that we would be able to make a determination that the remains were affiliated with the Chumash and return them after a period of months.”
In 1990, the federal Native American Graves and Repatriation Act gave tribes the rights to control what happens to their descendants’ human remains and sacred objects. Khan told reporters that, “In the early 1900s, it was a practice to find an Indian burial ground and dig it up and study it… And museums have bones and remains and funerary objects just sitting on shelves.” Kahn added,
“Tribes have been emotional over these issues when it comes to human remains because so many tribal sites have been desecrated throughout North America.”
San Miguel Island, the northern-most Channel Island, is owned by the U.S. Navy but managed by the National Park Service. Photo by Steve Henry/USFWS. ( CC BY 2.0 )
Before excavations could begin and before permitting that his remains could be transferred to a tribe, federal law first had to be satisfied that the National Park Service had properly determined that Tuqan Man was indeed Native American. Although Tuqan Man had been buried in a grave marked with stones almost 10,000 years, the shape of his skull did not appear to be Chumash.
At the same time a court ruling in Washington on the case of another set of ancient remains, “Kennewick Man,” had just raised the bar for determining Native American remains. In this case, the roughly 9,000 years-old skull greatly differed in shape form contemporary people and the remains were “too old” some claimed, to be Native American. Incredibly, the court agreed with the “too old” claim and said more information was required to determine if it was Native American or not.
To Erlandson however, “That flies in the face of all scientific logic… We know Native Americans have been here for 15,000 years. Kennewick Man, much like Tuqan Man, is 5,000 years younger than that.” It was decided that to successfully determine who should rightfully have custody of Tuna Man, the Chumash had to prove a direct relationship between Tuqan Man and their people.
Tyler Bight and Cuyler Harbor are the only approved overnight anchorages. Image: NPS ( Public Domain )
Radiocarbon dating finally established that Tuqan Man had been buried in his 40s or early 50s between 9,800 and 10,200 years ago. With a healed broken arm and signs that he had recovered from a health issue as a child, no signs were found that he was diseased or suffered trauma when he died. An isotype study trying to determine “where and what” the Tuqan Man ate suggested that he had been in the interior of California, which “threw another interesting wrench into the attempt to try to affiliate it with Chumash,” Erlandson said.
Russell Galipeau, former superintendent of Channel Islands National Park told reporters at the Ventura Star “We wanted to prove that Tuqan Man was one of the very, very first Chumash people… and I couldn’t do that.” Science aside, the Chumash people always believed he was one of their ancestors, “So, it was important for me that they get to bring this part of the Tuqan Man’s story to a close,” Galipeau said.
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A brief report in archeology.org said the National Parks Service had to “publish legal notices in local newspapers before handing the bones over to the Santa Ynez Band for reburial, but no other tribe came forward to claim Tuqan Man’s remains.” Finally, in May this year Khan sailed to San Miguel Island and transferred custody of the remains to the Chumash people and Tuqan Man was re-buried. After so many years “We’re very happy that we could lay this man to rest,” Kahn said. But he was quick to add “Some of our ancestors are still sitting in cabinets in museums or at other institutions… For us, it feels good to accomplish this but there’s so much more that needs to be done.”
By Ashley Cowie