Fly. Meet Wall. Calico Hills Public Presentation, Big Bear Lake, California, March 23, 2013

What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall on March 23, 2013, when the Friends of the Big Bear, California Library host Adella Schroth, Curator of Anthropology at the San Bernardino County Museum, and Director of the Calico Mountains Archaeological Site Project. Ripped from the headlines of Big Bear, California’s Big Bear News, an online service of Big Bear’s KBHR 93.3 FM. The March 15, 2013 edition is almost cautious in its mode of presentation—as if they know too well what to expect:

The dating of the site is still controversial as is [sic] the artifactual constituents. This lecture will introduce the Calico site and address two controversies. It is up to the audience to draw their own conclusions. 

Seating is limited. Best show up early to get the good seat.

I’m sorry. I can’t help myself. As it is I’ve spent the past three minutes biting my tongue so hard it’s bleeding! Talk about Zombie Archaeology. I thought this one had been bayed by a crucifix and staked through the heart at least 50 years ago. Evidently not.

I don’t doubt that one or two of the younger readers, and those of any age whose interests or places of residence happen not to include North America, will be unfamiliar with the tale of Calico Hills. Maybe this’ll help.

On the left is the discoverer of the Calico Hills site, Ruth DeEtte Simpson.
On the right is Louis S. B. Leakey—Mary’s husband, Richard’s father, and so on.
They’re happy ’cause they think they’ve found a Lower Palaeolithic (i.e. Acheulean) (i.e. Homo erectus) site in California.

The back story on the above photo. Leakey’s fame led Ruth Simpson to contact him about a site she’d located in California. Leakey thought it’d be worth a look. So, he got some National Geographic money, and for several years until his death in 1972, he ran the investigations. Claims for the antiquity of the site ranged anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000 years. And, in places, it’s possible to find dirt that’s that old. Something I did not know until this moment… In her autobiography  Mary Leakey allowed that Louis’s involvement was “catastrophic to his professional career and was largely responsible for the parting of our ways.” Bottom line: the site has for a very long time kept a small coterie of devotées archaeologists busy, and not many serious archaeologists will accept an age for the site much, if any, in excess of 15 kyr. It would indeed be interesting to hear what Adella Schroth will say about it at the talk in Big Bear on March 23rd.

The nearly vertical bank of an arroyo at the Calico Hills locality.

Sadly the depositional history of the site is the sort that has bedevilled many an archaeologist. It’s part of a complex of alluvial fans that are subject to anything from a light rain to high-energy debris flows. These high-energy events are more than capable of causing rocks to fracture in ways that mimic simple stone artifacts. Those so-called geofacts—found in ancient contexts—coupled with the light sprinkling of modern human presence in the area for most of the last 15,000 or so years, said to Simpson and Leakey: This is one really old site.

As it is plainly visible in the stratigraphic column illustrated below, the geology of the area is very much net-aggradational, although, as one can see from the view above of the wadi/arroyo/dry gulch/wash, such structures are often multiplex coalescent, spatially and time-transgressive phenomena and often new alluvial activity downcuts through older sediments. Thus, as one traverses one of these huge landforms it’s quite possible to see, at the surface, cultural material from the entire span of human presence in the area, and beyond. And as you probe the fan itself you’re likely to find an unsorted diamicton, comprising all sizes of rock, and including numerous highly angular gravel, pebbles, cobbles, boulders and everything in between.

I hope that the Friends of the Big Bear Library have their thinking caps on at the March 23rd talk.

The rugged, sere, landscape in which the Calico Hills site is located [red pushpin in centre of view]. The active alluvial fans occur in sediments that were themselves alluvial fans in an earlier epoch. Sites in places like these are riddles, wrapped in mysteries, carried inside enigmas. [Apologies to Winnie Churchill.]

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