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Historic Crossroad

Historic Crossroad 

THS Presentation Reveals Rich and Ancient History Beneath Town Center 

The Topanga Historical Society’s recent presentation by Andrew York was held at the Topanga Community Center, where neighbors and friends gathered for a potluck. Photo by Saori Wall

Amazing discoveries have been made under the pavement of Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Excavations reveal a record of the life lived by Topanga’s Native American residents as much as seven millenia before Europeans arrived on the scene. Archaeologist Andrew York headed the recent surveys, and shared his knowledge of what was found at the Topanga Historical Society talk titled “The Village at the Crossroads.” 

Participants gathered at the Topanga Community Center for a potluck and to learn about the amazing archaeological discoveries made in the middle of Topanga Canyon Blvd. during two major construction projects.

The potluck at the community center was my first, and the five-year-old rock collector in me was excited to finally be meeting an archaeologist. I have my Topanga neighbor Denis Hannigan to thank for inviting me along. Walking into a large crowd mostly of people I had never met, but speckled by familiar warm faces, I found myself deeply moved, certainly in the company of generational Topangans much wiser than myself. I could write stories about each and every one of them, but with ears and eyes wide open, I seated myself between old friends and new, all of us, bellies full, laser focused on Mr. York’s presentation. I was impressed by how quickly he got us all settled and quiet with his opening words.

York helps public agencies with their legal obligations to minimize their impacts on the environment, including archaeological sites. He worked as a field archaeologist and consultant on both Topanga road work projects, but he was also  born in Topanga Canyon, grew up within a mile of the site. He described the discovery and recovery of thousands of artifacts that help to reveal more about Topanga’s first people.

“What we do is we try to save the sites when we can, and if they can’t be saved we try to get as much information out of it as we can before they’re destroyed,” York said. However he emphasized it is much more complex and nuanced than that.

A few years ago his firm was contacted by the Department of Public Works to help with a project installing utilities under Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

“I jumped at the chance to get involved with these projects because I’ve always wanted to study archaeology in Topanga,” York said, acknowledging the contributions to the field by longtime Topanga resident Chester King, “the authority on pre-history of the Santa Monica Mountains” and fellow archaeologist Dan Larson, among others.

“We’re all old timers now, but the old timers then were talking about how there used to be an Indian village down by the old Best Foods Market,” York said.

In the early 1990s, when the Pine Tree Circle commercial development project was planned, an archaeological assessment was required. A couple of excavations were made, but only a small amount of material was found at the site. But years later, when York was retained by the County Department of Public Works on two utility projects, he made major discoveries nearby. The first project was to install utility lines under the boulevard for the newly constructed Topanga Library. 

The digging work on a project like this one is done with great caution and is closely monitored by an archaeologist and a Native American tribal descendant. If any artifact is found, the digging is redirected elsewhere. Sampling takes place and archaeological techniques are implemented; meter by meter, they dig by hand, ten centimeter levels at a time. The soil is put through a rigorous filtering through 1/8 inch to 1/16th inch screens, to make sure nothing is missed. 

At around eight feet under the road between Pine Tree Circle and The Inn of the Seventh Ray, among the old utilities that were being replaced, artifacts, food remains and human remains were discovered. 

York explained that there are legal procedures for when this happens. The Native American Heritage Commission designates a Native American who is most likely to be a descendant of the people who lived in Topanga and they provide input on how the remains are treated. In this case, the tribal chair of the Gabrielino Tongva San Gabriel band of Mission Indians was notified. 

The most common artifacts found were fragments of stone, the most interesting being a couple dozen pieces of obsidian. 

“The neat thing about obsidian is that each of these sources has a specific unique geochemical fingerprint,” York shared. The pieces of obsidian found at the site were from a volcanic field near Lone Pine 150 miles away. 

The stone tools that were found included some for working with yucca fibers. Others were drills made to perforate shell beads or drill holes in bones, like the whistles made from bird bones that were found at the site. Also found were beads made of various materials. Shell beads in California were extremely important at the time as they were a form of currency and also had ceremonial significance. 

Other discoveries provided insight into diet: ground seeds and plant foods were staple, but 15 pounds of bone fragments were also found—and transported to the San Diego Museum of Natural History for analysis. York estimates that a third of the bones came from rabbits, cotton gophers, woodrats, mice, ground squirrels, and deer. There were also sea otter and sea lion bones, evidence of 16 species of fish—including sardines, and 20 different species of shellfish.

“Keeping in mind, we excavated probably way less than one percent of what was originally here…it’s pretty clear this was a major settlement,” York said.

“Who they were is a little bit of a question,” he continued. “Topanga is generally thought to be within the territory of the Gabrielino or the Tongva as they are more often known now. North of the Tongva were the Chumash, from Malibu to San Luis Obispo…Many thousands of people lived here, several hundred settlements.”

Just before we were about to leave, Denis Hannigan pointed out another archaeologist, Austin Ringelstein, who also lived in Topanga and has focused his research on Chumash, Tongva and Tataviam homelands. 

He shared, “Mr. York’s valuable insight and findings from the excavations in Topanga confirmed the presence of indigenous people in the town’s center from at least 7,000 years ago until at least the early 1800s, with radiocarbon dates, obsidian hydration dates, glass beads and olive shell beads providing chronometric evidence. Mr. York did a great job emphasizing that indigenous people are still here and are active participants in various archaeological projects in the Santa Monica Mountains and acknowledged the many years of dedicated work of local Topanga archaeologists Chester King and Dan Larson.”

To learn more about future events visit the Topanga Historical Society online, support THS by becoming a member for $20 dollars a year for individuals, $30 per year for families.

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