Chumash Cemeteries Were Missed Preservation Opportunity
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
In a recent installment of the City of Malibu's "Ask the Mayor" column, Mayor Laura Rosenthal was asked why Malibu does not have a cemetery.
Rosenthal replied: "You are correct that Malibu does not have any modern cemeteries. Generally, unless the land was set aside a long time ago, most cemeteries are either developed by organizations (religious) or private companies that specialize in cemetery construction. Neither the Malibu Municipal Code nor the Local Coastal Program list cemeteries as a permitted or conditionally permitted use."
Malibu does, however, have numerous ancient burial sites.
Some Malibuites may be unaware that they drive, shop and in some areas even live on what was once consecrated ground.
Large Chumash and pre-Chumash cemeteries are known to have existed at Arroyo Sequit, Trancas Canyon, Point Dume, Paradise Cove, Solstice Canyon and Malibu Lagoon, and archaeologists estimate that there are hundreds of smaller grave sites scattered throughout the Santa Monica Mountains.
A number of significant Chumash sites were leveled or buried in the 1930s and 1940s to make way for Pacific Coast Highway. Archeologist E.K. Burnett, in a monograph published in 1944, describes numerous finds hastily excavated by teams attempting to survey and catalog sites before road crews bulldozed them.
Other cemeteries were excavated between 1915 and the 1970s. An inventory of human remains at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum that was published in 2007 to meet the requirements of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act encompasses numerous Malibu entries.
Examples include: "In 1915, human remains representing a minimum of two individuals were removed from 'the Malibu Ranch,' an unknown location in Los Angeles County, CA. The human remains were subsequently donated to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County by Irving V. Auger. No known individuals were identified. No associated funerary objects are present"; "at an unknown date, human remains representing a minimum of 13 individuals were removed from Arroyo Sequit Mound in Arroyo Sequit.
"The human remains were subsequently donated to the Natural History Museum by E.D. Mitchell. One set of human remains was identified by a tag reading 'EDM. 281, burial 18, Arroyo Sequit Mound." The other 12 sets of human remains were identified by a tag reading 'California Los Angeles County Arroyo Sequit Shell Mound Misc. Bones EDM-274'"; and "At an unknown date, human remains representing a minimum of three individuals were removed from a site in Solstice Canyon. The human remains were subsequently donated to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in 1971 by the Native Daughters of the Golden West."
The Trancas Canyon Cemetery site, or CA-LAN-197, was initially excavated in 1968 by a group of Malibu residents. UCLA archaeologists David Thomas and John Beaton later stepped in to supervise the excavation.
The late Dorothy Stotsenberg provided a brief account of the amateur archaeologists' efforts in her book "My 50 Years in Malibu." She wrote: "In 1968, Bobbie Sanders, my amateur archaeologist friend, uncovered a primitive burial ground beside Trancas Creek.
"The sight of people digging in the field attracted the attention of her Malibu neighbors and the County Sheriff, just as Bobbie unearthed a perfectly preserved skull.
"The sheriff told Bobbie he had to take the skull to the L.A. County Coroner's office for investigation, and that he would return it later.
Stotsenberg recounted that "her Malibu neighbors became the Malibu Archeological Society and received written permission from the property owners to continue the dig...revealing 14 burials. Word spread of the Trancas dig and John Beaton and Nelson Leonard of UCLA and the Archaeological Survey got themselves into the act."
According to Stotsenberg, the initial skull was cremated by the coroner's office because "the bones were not of interest." Stotsenberg reported seeing a portion of the Trancas site remains "in a drawer in the UCLA archaeology department" in 1981. "Nothing was ever done with those bones," she wrote.
The site, located under what is now the Trancas Garden Center and the shopping center parking lot, contained more than 100 burials dating to approximately 310-430 B.C., according to radiocarbon data.
Records indicate that the eastern portion of the cemetery was damaged when Trancas Creek was channelized by the Los Angeles County Flood Control District during the construction of the Malibu West subdivision. A portion of the site was also reportedly graded and covered in 50 cm of fill during the construction of the shopping center parking lot. Rodent activity, erosion and vandalism also impacted the site.
According to archaeologist Patricia Martz's 1984 dissertation "Social Dimensions of Chumash Burials in the Santa Monica Mountains," the excavators positively identified 62 adults, six adolescents, 15 children and nine infants.
There were 18 burials that appeared to mark individuals of special status. One status burial contained the remains of a child of seven or eight. He was the only individual discovered at the site who was buried with beads. He was also placed in his grave with abalone shells over his body and ceremonial red ochre paint.
Martz notes that the excavators failed to record data on the depth of the graves, information on field methodology is missing from the report, and "as might be expected, there is some inconsistent recording and some missing data."
Two cemeteries associated with Humaliwo—the Chumash community that gave Malibu its name—located along the edge of Malibu Creek at the Malibu Lagoon, cover a 2500-year period of Malibu history, according to archaeologist Chester King.
Excavations conducted by UCLA field students conducted in 1970-71 revealed a site dating to the Chumash Middle Period-800-1000 B.C., with more than 90 graves, and a Mission-era cemetery dating to AD 1775-1805 that held an estimated 140 individuals and approximately 58,000 artifacts, that included a sword of Spanish steel and a tiny silver Saint Francis medal, recovered from the grave of a child.
In 1995, anthropologists Lynn Gamble and Philip Walker and archaeologist Glenn Russell contracted with the California Department of Parks and Recreation "to organize, document, and complete research reports on the 1970s excavations in Malibu," which had been excavated by UCLA field school students. According to a 2002 article in American Antiquity, "The collections and associated documentation were in a state of disarray. Hundreds of hours were spent on organizing and analyzing the Malibu material, including the artifacts, skeletal remains, and documentation."
Chumash and pre-Chumash burials continue to be unearthed in Malibu. In the 1970s, a significant Chumash burial site was rumored to have been bulldozed to make way for a development without the benefit of excavation or reburial.
In 1998, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agreed to pay $315,000 to settle a breach of contract lawsuit brought by a construction company against Waterworks District No. 29 after the county discovered the project area included archaeologically sensitive Chumash burial grounds.
The construction firm argued that the county's bid package and project specifications were inadequate because of the sensitive archaeological site.
A Chumash skull was dug up at a construction project in the Paradise Cove area in 2007. Construction was halted and the authorities notified. Larry Myers, the executive secretary of the Native American Heritage Commission, said that a member of the Chumash people, having been declared "a most likely descendent," had been selected to work with the property owner where the skull was found.
Three men were arrested in Point Mugu State Park in 2010 on suspicion of illegally removing artifacts from a burial. It is illegal to remove items from a Native American historic site. Disturbing a burial site is a felony.
Sites located on private property can be legally covered over, but only after the find has been reported and closest living tribal representatives have been contacted.
State and federal law requires that the finder of human remains immediately contact law enforcement. In Malibu cases, the sheriff's department will contact the coroner. Once the remains are determined to belong to a Native American burial, tribal representatives are contacted and reburial, often in situ, is arranged.
Homeowners may opt to have finds excavated by an archaeologist before reburial takes place.
Native American Civil Rights advocacy groups add that all human remains should be treated with respect and not regarded as curiosities, collectables or trash.