Pre-historic man in San Diego much earlier than we thought

On the path of the old ones

Jeffrey Bada realized he could take bones that already had firm radiocarbon dates and analyze the amino acids in them.
  • Jeffrey Bada realized he could take bones that already had firm radiocarbon dates and analyze the amino acids in them.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

It is a long skull by anthropological standards, in fact almost elliptical, and it has an unusually heavy jaw. The teeth are yellowed with age, and were somehow ground down during their owner’s lifetime, probably from chewing food with sand inadvertently mixed into it. It is the skull of a man who stood about five and a half feet tall, and was between twenty and forty years old, when he died and was buried by an ancient people who lived along Southern California’s coast thousands of years ago. Dug out of the cliffs just north of Del Mar in 1926, the skull now rests in a small Plexiglas case in the San Diego Museum of Man, the line of its jaw forming a death grin that seems to mock those who believe it is the oldest human remains ever discovered in North America.

Bada determined the Del Mar skull to be 48,000 years old. The oldest previously discovered bones in North America were radiocarbon dated at 23,600 years.

Bada determined the Del Mar skull to be 48,000 years old. The oldest previously discovered bones in North America were radiocarbon dated at 23,600 years.

It’s now ten years, almost to the day, since an amateur archaeologist discovered what seemed to be extraordinarily old stone tools in a canyon above Mission Valley, and six years since a chemistry professor from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, using a new amino-acid dating technique, seemed to correlate that discovery when he determined the Del Mar skull to be 48,000 years old. The controversy touched off by that date — the oldest previously discovered bones in North America, found in Los Angeles in 1936, were radiocarbon dated at 23,600 years — raged for a few years and then died away. But it will soon be rekindled when the preliminary results of the latest in a series of discoveries in and around Mission Valley is published later this year.

Lying on the canyon bottom in University Heights Herbert Minshall saw what looked like an ancient stone artifact.

Lying on the canyon bottom in University Heights Herbert Minshall saw what looked like an ancient stone artifact.

There is no doubt primitive tribes inhabited the San Diego area a long time ago. The question is how long ago. For years it was generally agreed that humans could have come here no more than fifteen or twenty thousand years ago, crossing the Bering land bridge from Asia and gradually expanding southward. But a few people, led by a small number of local scientists and amateur archaeologists, have maintained that an increasing amount of evidence shows man has been in San Diego - and therefore in North America — for much longer than 20,000 years, and could have crossed the Bering land bridge at an earlier time.

Minshall combed through the rubble in Buchanan Canyon that March, finding quartzite scrapers, choppers, and hammers.

Minshall combed through the rubble in Buchanan Canyon that March, finding quartzite scrapers, choppers, and hammers.

Now it is beginning to look as if they were right all along: but no one, least of all the local experts themselves, seems able to agree on exactly when humans first arrived here.

“I’m prepared to say man has been in San Diego for 30,000 years,” says James Moriarty of the University of San Diego, who will publish a paper later this year on a recent excavation in Mission Valley.

According to James Moriarty, there indeed was an established culture here long before the La Jollans or the San Dieguitans.

According to James Moriarty, there indeed was an established culture here long before the La Jollans or the San Dieguitans.

“To say man has been here for only 30,000 years is ridiculous,” responds Herbert Minshall, an amateur archaeologist who has made several important contributions to the knowledge of ancient peoples locally. “If anything, I think we underestimated the age of the Del Mar skull,” says Jeffrey Bada, the Scripps chemist who developed the amino-acid dating method for fossil bones. “On the basis of our present evidence, man couldn't have been in San Diego longer than 20,000 years,” insists Paul Ezell, former professor of anthropology at San Diego State University.

Hundreds of artifacts were recovered from the Brown site, including an 1848 half-dime and broken shards of pottery, the latter of which had probably been rescued by the Kumeyaay Indians from the trash of the Mission de Alcala.

Hundreds of artifacts were recovered from the Brown site, including an 1848 half-dime and broken shards of pottery, the latter of which had probably been rescued by the Kumeyaay Indians from the trash of the Mission de Alcala.

That’s one thing about looking into the question of the meaning of archaeological evidence uncovered in San Diego: you have a hard time getting two people to agree on anything, but opinions fly as fast as x-rays from radioactive carbon 14.

As Herbert Minshall sat in the studio behind his University Heights home one morning recently, rain pounded the canyon slopes outside. He is a vigorous-looking man in his late sixties, with hair that sweeps back from his forehead in long, silvery strands; and his studio, which was spacious and quite dry, was adorned with his own paintings. Minshall once worked as a commercial artist and taught art for twelve years at Mesa and City colleges (he retired in 1969), but he is also the county’s top amateur archaeologist and has spent a good deal of his life poking around mesas and canyons looking for evidence of ancient man. He has written articles for several well-known archaeological journals, and in 1976 wrote a book for Copley Press entitled The Broken Stones, which recapped some of the older discoveries, archaeologically speaking, made in this area, including one find he made himself.

Ten years ago, on March 1, 1970, Minshall took a walk in Buchanan Canyon, which cuts a mile-long arc through University Heights from Highway 163 to Maryland Street. Buchanan Canyon (the name comes from a proposed street through it that was never built) happens to border Minshall’s back yard, and he was in the habit of walking in it for exercise. Heavy rains the day before had washed down rocks, trash, and soil from the higher slopes, and in the jumble of materials lying on the canyon bottom Minshall saw what looked like an ancient stone artifact.

“I think what attracted me to it was its symmetry more than anything else,” Minshall, who has a disarmingly casual way of speaking, told me. ‘it had long grooves in it and was shaped like a pumpkin seed; it couldn’t have been formed by natural action, in my opinion.” The artifact, which appeared to be a sort of core from which stone flakes were extracted, was larger and heavier than most such pieces found in North America, but Minshall recognized it as being similar to unusually large artifacts that a friend of his, George Carter, had found more than twenty years earlier in the bluffs near Texas Street. Carter, a geology professor at Johns Hopkins University and former curator of archaeology at the San Diego Museum of Man, had estimated the age of those artifacts at 70,000 years, because of the geological formation in which they were found. In 1957 he wrote a book which told of his discovery and outlined his theory that man had been in San Diego for at least 70,000 years. But the book met with outright ridicule, and Carter, who lacked any correlating evidence from other parts of the country, could defend himself only with a variation of “they laughed at Darwin, too.” Archaeologists scoffed at his dates, which were far older than any confirmed archaeological site in North America; and geologists claimed that the “artifacts” were only chunks of quartzite broken as they tumbled along in ancient streams. As Minshall combed through the rubble in Buchanan Canyon that March, finding quartzite scrapers, choppers, and hammers over the weeks following his original discovery, he realized they couldn’t be dated, since they had washed out of whatever geological formation they had been in. But he thought they would be clearly recognized as stone tools, and that their similarity to the Texas Street implements would lend credence to Carter’s theory.

Things didn't work out quite that smoothly. Minshall wasn’t able to show the Buchanan Canyon artifacts to Carter, who had moved on to Texas A & M, until the fall of 1971. When Carter finally did see them, his reaction, according to Minshall’s account in The Broken Stones, was, “My God, they’re Texas Street!’’ But few other experts were convinced they were even tools. “I used to get a lot of this: people would put a hand on my shoulder and say, ‘You know, Herb, streams break rocks,’ ” Minshall remembered with a wry smile. “Instead of artifacts, they called them ‘Carterfacts,’ or ‘naturefacts.’ “

Abruptly he stood up, crossed his studio, and picked up a large flat stone shaped more or less like an ellipse that was resting on a shelf. The stone was roughly the size of brick and weighed about eight pounds. It was quartzite, dark brown and partly translucent, the kind that archaeologists call “brown sugar quartzite” because it looks like a big lump of brown sugar. The two flat sides were irregularly flaked, but the surface was smooth where the flakes had fallen away, and it came to a sharp edge around most of its length. I slipped my hand over the unsharpened end and felt my heartbeat quicken; the stone had a balance and feel that was extraordinary. Minshall pointed out “use marks” — small chips along the cutting edge — and explained that the stone was a primitive chopper, once used for chopping wood and working wood and bone into other primitive implements. “I think it was the large size that made people overlook these things for so long, ’’ he said. “In a smaller size no one would have questioned that it was manmade, but nobody had ever seen anything this big before in North America.”

Determined to prove their suspicions were correct. Carter and Minshall began excavating the Texas Street bluffs above the Scottish Rite Temple in the summer of 1973. Meanwhile, in a related effort, James Moriarty of the University of San Diego simultaneously began to excavate a site in Buchanan Canyon. The work, done mostly by university students and other volunteers, proceeded slowly, but before the excavations were covered over that fall, several tools of unmistakably human manufacture had been dug out of the earth at both locations. Unfortunately, none of them could be conclusively dated; carbon from what might have been an ancient stone hearth at the Texas Street site proved to be beyond the range of radiocarbon dating (roughly 40,000 years), and no one could date the silt deposits in Buchanan Canyon with any authority.

The 1973 excavations at least convinced a few local skeptics that the stones were indeed tools, but the body of archaeologists nationally remained unconvinced. The following year Bada at Scripps dropped his bombshell about the age of the Del Mar skull, but that date was generally met with skepticism, too. Then the credibility of Carter’s and Minshall's theory took a nosedive a few years later, with the arrival here in 1977 of Jason Smith of the Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology. Ironically, Smith was a proponent of the very old finds, and soon after his arrival announced the discovery of ancient tools on the cliffs above Black’s Beach. Interviewed by local TV reporters, he held up a few stone points of remarkable workmanship. But when Herb Minshall saw the TV news that night, he hit the ceiling. “Carter and I had shown him that site in the first place,” he said, “and while we were out there we looked around and found a few arrowheads and stone points — but from a much more recent culture — and we gave them to him. Then on the news that night we saw Smith saying he had found some very significant things, and holding out the points we had given him. We knew then that we had a crackpot on our hands.” Smith disappeared as quickly as he had come, but returned in the spring of 1978 and almost immediately called the press out to what he said was another site near the Mission San Diego de Alcala. There he displayed stone tools he claimed were at least 100,000 years old. “He showed artifacts to the reporters that weren’t even from that site!” Minshall said. “And then a few nights later I saw him on national TV, announcing that he had discovered early man in San Diego. It was unforgivable to employ deception like that.” Shortly after that Smith left San Diego a second time, but soon made headlines again when he was arrested in Peru for attempting to smuggle cocaine out of that country in plaster casts of ancient artifacts. Reports of whether or not he still languishes in jail conflict, but Minshall told me Smith bought his way out soon after being arrested. Then he smiled his wry smile again and said, “You know, I would have given a thousand dollars to be on the scene when they arrested Jason with those plaster casts.”

In the last few years, mounting evidence has begun to confirm Carter’s and Minshall’s discoveries. Similar tools, often made of the same brown sugar quartzite, but occasionally of felsite or obsidian, have been found in Arizona, Texas, Mexico, and elsewhere in California. Most archaeologists now agree that many, if not all, of the artifacts found by Carter and Minshall are manmade, a position that James Moriarty seemed to sum up recently. “I can’t tell you how Dr. Carter has had to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune since the Fifties. His first discoveries will someday be considered one of the great discoveries of American archaeology. He had to put up with insults, and they were insults. . . . But slowly over the years there has been growing evidence that he was right, because the artifacts are artifacts and have been seen in the ground. I would say now that just about everything Dr. Carter said, as far back as the early Sixties, has come to be believed, and the only variation now is on how old these artifacts are.

“To nail down his argument about their age, you would need to find some material that could be carbon dated — charcoal or shell or bone — with these primitive artifacts associated with it. Any date of over 30,000 years would mean you’d have to start looking very seriously at what Carter and Minshall say about the antiquity of man in the Western Hemisphere.”


When I contacted him at Scripps Institution of Oceanography last month, Jeffrey Bada had just returned from a four-month-long trip to China, during which he had introduced the Chinese to the fine points of amino-acid dating of fossil bones. He was already hard at work, however. on a new project utilizing amino-acid dating to help pin down the life span of marine mammals, so I took care to make sure I wasn't disrupting his busy schedule. “Are you in the middle of anything?” I inquired over the phone. “I’m in the middle of finishing a banana.” he replied.

Bada, who is thirty-seven, is a tan, wiry man with longish blond hair. A graduate of San Diego State University (class of ’65), he went on to earn a Ph D. in organic chemistry at the University of California, San Diego, and is generally credited with developing the amino-acid method for dating fossil bones. Until the early Seventies, the only reliable way to date relatively young fossilized finds with any precision was through radiocarbon dating. Radioactive carbon, known as carbon 14, is constantly produced by the action of cosmic rays on the earth’s upper atmosphere. It drifts earthward and is absorbed by living organisms, but the absorption process stops when the organism dies, and the radioactivity of the carbon within the organism then begins to run down. Since it runs down at a constant rate, the amount of radioactive carbon in a fossilized bone or shell can be measured, and the age of the specimen determined (the man who originally figured this out, Willard Libby, won a Nobel Prize for it). There are two major drawbacks to radiocarbon dating, though: it can be used only on organic material younger than about 40,000 years, and anywhere from two to ten pounds of the specimen must be destroyed in order to measure the carbon within it. In other words, you often trade in your discovery for a date.

In the mid-Sixties, Philip Abelson and P. Edgar Hare, two scientists at the Camegie Institute in Washington, D.C., began to experiment with amino-acid dating as a possible alternative to the radiocarbon method. Since the 1850s it had been known that amino acids (often referred to as the “building blocks” of protein) within living organic tissue undergo a chemical change known as racemization when the tissue dies. Essentially, the change involves an alteration of the molecular structure of the acids, from what is known as an “L” isomer to a “D” isomer. The change continues to occur until a perfect one-to-one balance of L to D isomers is achieved, but this can take millions of years, depending on what temperature the reaction is exposed to, and which amino acid you analyze (there are twenty different amino acids in human bones, and all racemize at different rates). For their experiments Abelson and Hare used marine fossil shells, and found that by analyzing the ratio of L to D isomers in a particular amino acid, they could determine how long racemization had been taking place, and therefore how old the shell was.

One advantage amino-acid dating has over radiocarbon dating is that, in order to measure the amino acids, only a small amount of organic material is needed. As little as one gram will do. When I visited Bada in his office at Scripps last month, he explained how the measuring is done. First the organic material, usually bone or shell, is cleaned and dissolved in hydrochloric acid; then this solution is boiled, which breaks down the protein into its amino acids. “To filter out the amino acids from the rest of the material you use a chemical purification process known as chromatography,” he said. “You end up with all the amino acids in a single gooey drop — it looks like a drop of coffee. Then you separate the particular acid you want from the rest — the one we look at most often is aspartic acid — and you end up with such a minute quantity it’s almost invisible.” At this stage, aspartic acid is reacted with another solution which separates the L from the D isomers. The two forms of acid are then put into an amino-acid analyzer — a standard piece of equipment at any hospital — which measures the amount of each. The whole process takes about four days.

Abelson and Hare did exactly this, but when they tried to apply the technique to land fossils, their experiments bogged down over the question of temperature. Fossils preserved in or beneath the ocean are often subjected to relatively constant temperatures, but in most cases, land fossils are subjected to a wide variety of temperatures over the centuries. And to determine, for example, what the various temperatures were on a mesa in southwestern Wyoming for the last 200,000 years seemed an impossible task. Meanwhile, Bada was independently pursuing similar research along the way to earning his doctorate at UCSD. He studied racemization as it took place in laboratory liquids, and began to speculate that if the reaction occurred the same way in nature, it could be used as a method of dating fossils. Some time after this he read a paper by Hare on the subject, which, Bada says, lacked specific information and only stimulated him to continue his own work.

In 1969 he took a position at Harvard University and began dating fossilized crustaceans from beneath the ocean floor. The results were encouraging, and two years later he tested fossilized human bones from a cave in Mallorca, coming up with a date almost identical to one later obtained with carbon 14. The Mallorca bones were known to have been preserved at a more or less constant temperature, which made them rather easy to date by the amino-acid method. But soon Bada moved on to Scripps, where he began dating fossil bones that had been exposed to a wide variety of climatic conditions. When his dates were checked against radiocarbon dates for the same specimens, there was a close correspondence. How did he get around the problem of temperature variations over long periods of time? “I came into this from a theoretical standpoint,” he told me, “and as part of that I developed the mathematical equations that described racemization. In themselves, the equations were trivial — an undergraduate exercise — but they probably helped me out when I got further along. You see, with the equations for racemization there are two variables: time and temperature. But the beauty of the equations is that if you know one you can determine the other. ” In other words, Bada realized he could take bones that already had firm radiocarbon dates, analyze the amino acids in them, and come up with an average temperature to which they must have been exposed. That temperature could then be applied to other, undated bones, if they came from the same general area, and their age could be determined. “In retrospect, it seems like common sense, a trivial thing,” he said. “But it turned out to be a major breakthrough. ” As Bada’s technique developed, it attracted the attention of George Carter at Texas A & M. Carter eventually contacted Bada and persuaded him to date some bones that had been boxed and stored at the Museum of Man in San Diego for more than forty years. The bones, most of which were discovered in the late Twenties and early Thirties by Malcolm Rogers, then director of the museum, belonged to an ancient culture known as the La Jollans, since most of their remains were found along the coastal bluffs near La Jolla. Rogers had estimated the bones to be about nine or ten thousand years old, but they had never been dated more specifically, and Carter thought some of them might be older. Bada agreed to date them and eventually received a number of samples from the museum, including a skull from the bluffs north of Del Mar and part of another that had been found at the site of the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club when it was being built. The samples were identified only by numbers, so Bada and his associates had no idea which bone was from where or how old Carter thought they might be. To obtain his temperature estimate for the region, Bada used a skull found near Laguna Beach, radiocarbon dated at 17,150 years old.

When the tests were completed, Bada huddled with his chief assistant, Roy Schroeder, and with Spencer Rogers, then scientific director of the Museum of Man. The three eventually called a press conference on May 14, 1974, and announced their findings: The skull fragment from La Jolla Shores had been dated at 44,000 years old, and the Del Mar skull at 48,000 years old. “People accuse me of publicizing those dates before I had done enough preliminary tests,” Bada told me (he had analyzed about one hundred samples before the Del Mar skull). “But sometimes you have to put your neck on the line. In retrospect I think it was good; it focused attention on the process.”

Six years after his announcement Bada’s date for the Del Mar skull remains unaccepted by the vast majority of anthropologists and archaeologists in the United States. Two of the most prominent critics locally are James Moriarty and Paul Ezell. “It’s my well-known opinion,” Moriarty has said, “that there has to be something wrong with the date because the site itself won't date that old. I think racemization gives a relative date, and there are certainly some indications that it might be off by some very high percentages.” After Bada's original announcement, Moriarty led an excavation of the site, most of which had been bulldozed off since Malcolm Rogers first discovered the skull eroding out of the cliffs in 1926. “I found that very little material remained, and we did a very thorough, teaspoon job. The artifact and shell material that remained represented, in my opinion, the earliest phase of the La Jolla culture, and there’s a 9000-year [radiocarbon] date on the top layers of the remnant, which would have been the bottom layer of the site Rogers found.”

Bada responded with a trace of annoyance when I reminded him of Moriarty’s opinion. “He’s not a chemist; he doesn’t have the knowledge to understand or criticize amino-acid dating. It’s a really routine thing. It's such simple chemistry that it’s boring to most chemists. I’ve argued that the carbon 14 dates for the remaining site are screwed up. You’ve got a 9000-year date on top of a 6000-year date, which goes against everything archaeology has taught us for the last 150 years. ” Bada pointed out that carbon 14 from the atmosphere, more prevalent now than in the past because of atomic testing, could have contaminated the exposed site over the years. And it’s true that excess carbon 14 would make a bone sample seem younger than it really is. When I put this question to Paul Ezell, he shrugged and said simply, “Well, that certainly is a possibility.”

No one has attempted to date the Del Mar skull with carbon 14. For one thing, it would mean the destruction of the skull itself, and for another, if it was beyond the range of radiocarbon dating, the results would be inconclusive. But Bada has now used amino-acid dating on more than 500 fossil samples, including bones from Ol-duvai Gorge in East Africa, and, most recently, on bones from the site where Peking Man was discovered in China. In every case, he said, there has been a close correlation with either geological evidence or radiocarbon dates. “No one questions the other dates,” he pointed out. “I’d find it very unusual if the Del Mar date turned out to be wrong, when all the others around the world are right. People criticize amino-acid dating of fossils, but no one is willing to publish anything proving it doesn’t work. In a way, it’s like I’m fighting a ghost. In six years there hasn’t been one paper published that says the Del Mar date is incorrect.”

Currently a new method of radiocarbon dating is being developed, one which would push its range back to around 60,000 years. When it is perfected, Bada plans to test amino-acid dating against it, side by side, with a comprehensive collection of samples. But it could be years before that happens, and for now he says only, “Here everyone’s arguing about the age of the tools they’ve found in Mission Valley, and we’ve got what I consider to be a firm date on a bone sample, which is what everyone says we need to prove that man was here 50,000 years ago. I have no qualms about the date of the Del Mar skull. If anything, it will turn out to be older.”


In the winter of 1977, Richard Gadler, an archaeology student at the University of San Diego, was driving along Hotel Circle Drive when he noticed bits of seashell eroding out of the side of an embankment on the northern side of the road. The embankment was located a few hundred yards east of the Hanalei Hotel, next to a house that for years served as the headquarters for State Senator Jack Schrade but has since become home for the Wheatcroft Company (a real estate development firm). Knowing that broken bits of seashell often indicate the site of an Indian shell midden (rubbish heap), Gadler contacted his faculty sponsor at USD, James Moriarty, and told him of the find. Moriarty subsequently visited the site, and when he decided it was worth excavating, contacted the owner of the property, Atlas Hotels. In a flurry of publicity releases, Moriarty then announced his intention to excavate and Atlas Hotels announced it would sponsor his work at the site, which was named the Brown site in honor of the founder of the Atlas Hotels chain, Terry Brown.

Work at the Brown site got underway in May of that year. Moriarty visited the site often, but the day-to-day task of excavation was supervised by one of his graduate students, Brian Smith, who had helped Carter and Minshall excavate the Texas Street site four years earlier. Under Smith’s direction, the work at the Brown site proceeded as it does at most formal archaeological excavations: First wooden stakes were driven into the ground at six-foot intervals, and were connected with twine, forming a grid of squares. Next the digging began, but only in every other square, checkerboard style. Eventually, a particularly promising twenty-four-foot by twenty-four-foot square was excavated in the southeast comer of the grid. Looking down into it while it existed, you would have seen a series of steps cut into the earth, each step indicating a different culture or level of culture, leading down to the deepest level eight feet below the surface. Hundreds of artifacts were recovered from the Brown site, including, from the uppermost levels, an 1848 half-dime and broken shards of pottery, the latter of which had probably been rescued by the Kumeyaay Indians from the trash of the Mission de Alcala about a mile away and put to use as scrapers and cutting tools. Not very far down into the ground, though, the artifacts became increasingly primitive, moving back thousands of years through the La Jollan culture to the earlier San Dieguito culture. And lying in the coarse red silt at the bottom of the excavation, mixed in with a layer of large, rounded cobblestones, were brown quartzite hammers and scrapers identical to those found in Buchanan Canyon seven years earlier by Herb Minshall.

It has taken Moriarty almost three years to evaluate the discoveries from the Brown site, but when the preliminary results appear in a memorial publication in honor of the late Carl Hubbs later this year, there is little doubt archaeologists around the nation will sit up and take note. For one thing, the fact that the quartzite tools were in some cases discovered in conjunction with other, more recent tools seems to indicate that the people who made them were culturally related to later tribes. For another, according to Moriarty, they confirm that there indeed was an established culture here long before the La Jollans or the San Dieguitans, who until recently were thought to be the first inhabitants of San Diego.

In his paper Moriarty will propose a name for this oldest of all local peoples: the Malpais. (The name, which means “badlands,” will probably be hotly disputed by many archaeologists, who feel the culture should be named “macro-lithic” after the size of its tools.) Sitting behind a wooden desk in his office at USD recently, Moriarty, a short, silver-haired man with a deep voice and a jovial manner, told me what he believes can be deduced about the Malpais, based on the discoveries at the Brown site and elsewhere. In essence, archaeology is the art of analyzing ancient garbage — it gives you an incomplete but rather intimate view of whomever you’re studying — and it is surprising how much can be learned from a thorough examination of the evidence at hand.

With the onset of the last glacial period, around forty to sixty thousand years ago, the Malpais crossed the Bering land bridge from Asia and began moving down the coast in search of more plentiful food and, perhaps, a warmer climate. (At the same time, some of the Malpais apparently moved inland, following game herds down an ice-free corridor through Canada and Montana, and eventually into the Great Basin, California, Texas, and Mexico.) They were a marine-oriented people, eating the mussels and clams they found in the shallow bays and inlets, and moving on when they depleted the shellfish in a particular area. Because the seas were lower then, the routes they followed are probably now underwater. But over thousands of years the glaciers gradually melted, the seas rose, and the Malpais camped on river banks and bluffs that today are well out of reach of the sea. With their huge stone hammers and choppers they worked wood and bone, and supplemented their food supply by hunting. Undoubtedly they killed mammoths, horses, and the great Bison antiquus, more than twice the size of the bison living today. They knew fire, and gathered wild nuts and grains; but like other peoples of their era they never learned to farm, and thus never had time to conceive and build the huge temples and structures developed by later cultures. And apparently they never buried their dead, instead leaving them exposed to the wind and water and scavengers, for their bones have never been found.

By the time the Malpais reached San Diego, they would have found most of Mission Valley covered with a powerful but shallow river. They would have camped by its shore in small bands, hunting occasionally and scavenging from other predators’ kills, chopping the bones open with their huge stone implements in order to eat the nourishing marrow inside. Here they would have lived for thousands of years, until the glaciers to the north retreated and the climate of the earth began to warm again. And suddenly a new people, the San Dieguito, appeared out of the arid lands to the east in search of food. From their tools we know them as a relatively sophisticated people who produced beautiful fluted stone arrowpoints and long-handled knives. Most archaeologists believe the San Dieguito people (so named because some of the first discoveries of their remains were made by Malcolm Rogers near the San Dieguito River in San Diego’s North County) were the direct ancestors of the modern North American Indians. having crossed the Bering land bridge thousands of years after the Malpais and gradually spread southward. They arrived in San Diego in small numbers approximately 13,000 years ago; but unlike the Malpais they did not eat seafood (it may have been a taboo among them), and camped mostly in the inland mountains. For generation after generation these two different peoples inhabited the area now known as San Diego County, rarely and perhaps never coming into contact with each other. But once they did meet, about 9000 years ago, the superior technology of the San Dieguitans had a tremendous impact on the Malpais, who refined their own tools and came to be known from that time onward to historians as the La Jollans.

“Eventually the La Jollans began to move inland to augment their food supply, possibly on a seasonal basis, and the San Dieguitans slowly but surely got incorporated into them,’’ Moriarty went on. “What happened to those ancient tribes? Well, they didn’t just disappear. By about 500 A.D. the Colorado River peoples, the Yuman peoples, had begun to move across to the coast. They found the descendants of the La Jollans living here, and they moved in and eventually amalgamated. They didn’t kill each other off; there’s no evidence of that and no reason for it. So our historical Indians, the ones who were here when the Spanish arrived, are a combination of the last phases of the marine-oriented La Jollans and their cousins from the Colorado River.”

There are those who would dispute the above scenario, particularly Moriarty’s estimated date of arrival for the Malpais. In his paper he will argue that they crossed the Bering land bridge 40,000 to 60,000 years ago, and reached San Diego 30,000 years ago. Carter and Minshall, of course, are convinced that the Malpais were here much earlier, and Minshall has already criticized Moriarty's time sequence. Pointing out that the Bering land bridge very likely didn’t even exist 40,000 years ago, Minshall complained, “We’ve waited three years for him to publish the results of that excavation, and now he’s going to come out with this. The man shrinks from controversy. We’re friends, but we argue constantly. He just wants to be accepted. He’s worried about his peers holding him up to ridicule.” Moriarty admitted that his date of 30,000 years is only an estimate, based on the relative depth of the oldest tools found at the Brown site and other factors. “It’s true that Carter and Minshall and others see my Malpais as considerably older. It’s a problem that will be solved as more work is done and there are increases in technology. . . . I am very conservative. I teach, so I can’t go beyond what I consider good extrapolation. I don’t think that’s cowardly of me, I sort of think that’s that way it should be.”

Minshall said that once Moriarty publishes the paper on the Malpais, he will publish his own on the geomorphology (as the study of the origin of land forms is known) of the Brown site. According to Minshall, the Brown site for the first time offers a dateable geological context for the huge stone artifacts. The granite cobbles mixed in with them at the lowest levels could only have been deposited by the San Diego River, he said, and the river hasn’t run at that elevation (the site is about forty feet above the present-day riverbed) for at least 60,000 years. “There should be no controversy about it,” he insisted. “That evidence tells us man has been in this area for at least sixty to eighty thousand years. ”

Others are not so sure. Geologists at SDSU said that the Rose Canyon fault, which cuts across the mouth of Mission Valley, could have caused the land mass on either side of it to rise in relation to the other, throwing off calculations as to when the deposits were made. And Minshall will certainly need others to corroborate his opinions before they are widely accepted. As Paul Ezell put it, “Herb Minshall is a pretty damn good amateur geomorphologist. But that’s not good enough.’’


At the end of February I called up Brian Smith, who is now twenty-six and works as an independent archaeological consultant while trying to finish off his master’s degree in history at USD. I told him I wanted to take a look at the Brown site and talk with him about what had been found there. Smith agreed, and though our meeting was postponed for a week or so by rains, we finally arranged to meet at the site one Saturday afternoon. As it turned out, I arrived ahead of Smith, so I got out of my truck and wandered down a nearby construction road to take a look at Mission Valley. Overhead the sun occasionally peeked through towering white storm clouds, and I could see that most of the valley, including the Stardust golf course, was under water. The San Diego River had for a few days become a river once more, and it was easy to imagine what it must have looked like to the ancient tribes who camped on its shore.

With all the archaeological finds that have been made here in the last few decades, you’d expect archaeologists to be flocking here, trying either to prove or disprove the antiquity of man. But such has not been the case; as a matter of fact, no formal excavations are currently planned at all. It takes money to be able to carry out a full-scale dig. and grants these days are in short supply. Carter, who retired from the faculty of Texas A & M in 1978, is now recovering at his home in Bryant, Texas, from open-heart surgery. Minshall is still poking around Buchanan Canyon; just two months ago he found a piece of bone there that could turn out to be human. He plans to have it looked at soon by an expert, and if it is determined to be human, he will turn it over to Bada for dating. Bada has no specific plans relating to archaeology other than his upcoming showdown with the new carbon 14 method; but one of his associates at Scripps, Pat Masters, is in the early stage of a program that will investigate archaeological finds from offshore. It’s thought that some of the older Malpais sites would be likely to lie along the continental shelf, and over the next few years Masters, who will rely mainly on sport divers to bring her information and artifacts, hopes to establish which sites are indeed the locations of ancient villages. Meanwhile. Paul Ezell has been doing field work in Texas and Mexico, and says that some evidence indicates people were there even before they were in San Diego. Just about everyone is beginning to think humans have been in North America for a lot longer than was previously believed, but no one has found the definitive garbage, the thrown-away scraper or the leftovers of some ancient snack, that would convince the skeptics once and for all.

I hadn’t been standing for long, looking out at flooded Mission Valley, when Brian Smith arrived. He led me over to the Brown site, which stands about ten feet above Hotel Circle Drive next to the Wheatcroft Company building. The ground was overgrown with long green grasses and weeds, but Smith showed me where the excavation had been made and explained what had been found. Then we jumped down the side of the bank, and he pointed out the layer of river-deposited cobbles, which represented the deepest point of the excavation, exposed along the roadside. We walked along the bank for a few yards, inspecting the rocks that had been washed out by the recent rains, and suddenly Smith reached down and picked up a greenish-black stone lying in the damp grass. It was the size of a bottle opener, and came to a sharp edge on one side. The other side was just wide and flat enough to support a human finger, and the whole thing fit snugly into his hand. “That looks pretty suspicious,” I offered. “Yes,” he said, peering at the stone and turning it over and over in his hand. “Yes, it does.”

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