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Mark James Miller: Arlington Springs Man, the oldest human fossil found in North America
Central Coast: Past, Present, Future

Mark James Miller: Arlington Springs Man, the oldest human fossil found in North America

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He lived in a primeval world, a world of giant sloths that resembled bears, saber-toothed cats that weighed more than 600 pounds, and dire wolves one-third larger than the average canis lupus of today.

He hunted, he fished, and he used a canoe to go back and forth from the mainland to the islands only a few miles offshore. When he died his bones lay in the earth for 13,000 years, and because they were discovered near Arlington Springs on Santa Rosa Island, he was named the Arlington Springs Man. His are the oldest human remains ever unearthed in the Americas.

“Civilization,” wrote Will Durant, “is an interlude between ice ages.” Arlington Springs Man lived and died in the late Pleistocene Era, just as the last ice age was ending. Thirty percent of the earth’s surface was covered with ice. So much water was concentrated in the glaciers that the oceans were 200-400 feet lower than they are now.

The falling sea levels exposed a “land bridge” 500 miles wide between Asia and North America, and Arlington Springs Man’s ancestors may have walked across that bridge, migrating from Siberia and eventually trekking south to the Central Coast and beyond.

Arlington Spring Man’s bones — two femora — were found in 1959 by archaeologist Phil Orr, curator of anthropology and paleontology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Knowing how important this find was, Orr took them to the museum for study and analysis. They were at first thought to date back 10,000 years, but modern carbon dating techniques eventually indicated their age to be 3,000 years older than that.

Arlington Springs Man did not live alone on Santa Rosa Island. He shared it with many other creatures, among them the “pygmy” mammoth.

Scientists had long been aware that the Columbian Mammoth lived on the Northern Channel Islands. Remains of these 14 foot tall, 20,000 pound behemoths had been discovered on Santa Rosa in 1856. But in 1994 the bones of a Mammuthus columbi unlike any seen before were found on Santa Rosa by scientists working for the National Park Service.

This specimen weighed only one-tenth of his huge cousin and stood on average only five feet high. Scientists named it Mammuthus exilis, aka the “Pygmy” or the “Channel Island Mammoth,” and it is found nowhere else on earth.

Forty thousand years ago Columbian Mammoths in search of food swam to the Northern Channel Islands. They were one island then, a single land mass known now as Santarosae. As the glaciers melted and the oceans rose, much of Santarosae was covered by the sea, with only the four highest points remaining above water. These became the islands we know as Santa Cruz, Anacapa, San Miguel and Santa Rosa.

This meant less range and less food for the Columbian Mammoths, and as the eons went by the smaller mammoths were better able to adapt. Eventually they evolved into a separate species, then were hunted to extinction by the natives.

When and how human beings first arrived in the Americas is still a subject for debate. The Land Bridge Theory holds that 20,000 years ago people began migrating from Siberia across the Land Bridge and into present day Alaska. The Pacific Coast Migration Theory has it that hunter-gathers in canoes made their way down the coast, stopping and establishing settlements along the way.

Future excavations of the Northern Channel Islands will reveal more about our fascinating past. There is no way of knowing what secrets may lie below the ground, but certainly our desire for knowledge will someday reveal them all.

Mark James Miller is an Associate English Instructor at Allan Hancock College and President of the Part-Time Faculty Association. He can be reached at mark@pfaofahc.com.

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