Mysterious Island:What Lies Beneath

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It was a different world and a different time.  For thousands of years, it was an entirely different people and culture which inhabited this Island that is nowadays named after the saint of a religion which developed on the opposite side of the globe.

Long before Saint Catherine of Alexandria was martyred, Catalina Island was the home of the Tongva people.  And occasionally we are reminded of this fact when relics from that distant time make their way into our modern work-a-day world.

It was a different world and a different time.  For thousands of years, it was an entirely different people and culture which inhabited this Island that is nowadays named after the saint of a religion which developed on the opposite side of the globe.

Long before Saint Catherine of Alexandria was martyred, Catalina Island was the home of the Tongva people.  And occasionally we are reminded of this fact when relics from that distant time make their way into our modern work-a-day world.

Such was the case earlier this month when a work crew on Metropole uncovered the remains of some of those early islanders while replacing an underground electrical vault near the Metropole Marketplace.  Construction work at the site was immediately halted by archaeologists from Orange County-based Cogstone Resource Management who were on site.

“This is a burial site,” said Gabriel Robles, representative of the Tongva Tribe and an employee of Cogstone.  “This area is one of the original village sites on the Island,” he said, adding that the whole downtown area was the location of burial sites and active Tongva villages existing side by side.

“Everyone knows this is a beautiful area and people have always loved to live here,” he said.

And how old is the Metropole site?  “Definitely Pre-Contact,” said Robles, referring to the arrival of the first Europeans in the 1500s.  He estimates that the site could be anywhere from a few hundred years to several thousand years old.  “At this point we’re really sensitive about discussing any specifics,” he said, adding that eventually such data will be made public.

“We will make a determination (of the site’s age) based on tests of some of the animal pieces found or ‘faunal material’ as it’s called.”  Those materials include fish bones, marine mammal bones and other items associated with early human habitation of the waterfront area.

Robles notes that there have been some false rumors floating around about the discovery.  He said the site was not the location of a massacre as some have surmised, nor has any turquoise jewelry been found.  Nor were the remains deposited from higher up in the hills as a result of some ancient deluge.

Despite the rumor mill, Robles is especially impressed with the care that has been taken on the part of all involved parties, particularly Southern California Edison and their contractee Pennsylvania-based Henkels & McCoy, Inc.

“We have a very caring crew working on solutions to treat these ancestors with dignity and respect,” said Robles.  “It’s awesome that Edison is doing this.”

But such discoveries haven’t always been treated with this way.  “Before CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act) it was the Wild West.”

Until relatively recently, he said, it was common practice for construction companies to simply backhoe through such sites.  “They would just dig and cover it back up when they were done.”  Edison’s approach on the other hand is to have monitors present and comply with the regulations now in effect.

As of this writing, there’s no exact timetable as to when the work of Robles and his colleagues will be finished and construction can resume.  It’s just one of those things that will be done when it’s done.

For thousands of years, the Tongva lived a simple, relatively unchanged lifestyle here in Avalon Canyon, fishing, hunting sea birds and mammals and collecting shellfish.  Like people everywhere they surely had their good days and their bad days, their feuds and their romances.

While the big world outside of their universe saw the rise of agriculture, cities and the great empires of China, Persia, Europe and Mesoamerica, the individuals whose eternal slumber was interrupted this month on Metropole knew none of this.  In fact, they could scarcely have conceived of it until the inevitable clash of cultures that began with the visit to the Island of Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542.

The Metropole discovery serves to remind us of what literally and figuratively lies beneath our modern world.  These folks were buried here long ago “with dignity and respect,” said Robles, and it is his intention that they are once again returned to peace.

“This is the heritage of not only my people but of all the people who live here now,” he said.  “We love this island and have a respect for the community and appreciate the outpouring of support.  And we seek that love and support as a united community at this point.  We’re just working together.”

“This is how things should be.”

Jim Watson is the author of “Mysterious Island: Catalina,” available on Amazon, Kindle and in stores all over Avalon.

Mysterious Island:What Lies Beneath