This paper is part of the Proceedings of the Maritime Cultural Landscape Symposium, October 14-15, 2015, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Todd Braje
Associate Professor of Anthropology, San Diego State University

Since its introduction to archaeology by Christer Westerdahl (1992) over twenty years ago, the idea of maritime cultural landscapes (MCLs) has grown to become a useful concept in anthropology and archaeology. In particular, the model has evolved to include the interconnections between human use of both marine and terrestrial environments. Indeed, maritime landscapes to do not end at the shore but include travel routes, subsistence patches, and places of cultural significance on both land and water (Westerdahl 2008:212). This is also a useful concept because what is terrestrial at one moment in time, may be maritime at another. For coastal and island archaeologists, this is especially true given the massive fluctuations in eustatic sea levels during the Pleistocene.

In much the same way, archaeologists and other scientists must be careful to recognize the powerful ways humans shaped and re-shaped MCLs through deep time. One of the growing theoretical trends in archaeology has been towards a historical ecological approach. Historical ecology is an interdisciplinary field focused on documenting the long-term dialectical relationship between humans and their environments (Crumley 1994; Rick and Lockwood 2013). Historical ecologists recognize that modern ecosystems are the result of lengthy processes of natural climatic change and human influences; and humans have been key agents of ecological change for millennia (see Balée and Erikson 2006; Swetnam et al. 1999). Historical ecology, while more widely applied in terrestrial settings, has been used in maritime venues and can be a key component in helping to define MCLs. Maritime cultures were engineers of their aquatic and terrestrial environments for millennia and their actions had a heavy hand in shaping the modern state of land and seascapes. Any discussion of MCLs, then, must include the linkages between ancient and contemporary ecosystems and the role of humans in creating both. Here, I offer a series of case studies from California’s Northern Channel Islands that demonstrate how hunter-gatherer-fishers shaped MCLs for over 10,000 years.

The Northern Channel Islands: Environmental and Cultural Context
Southern California’s Santa Barbara Channel region has a Mediterranean climate that is characterized by warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters. The mainland coast in this area trends east-west and the region is bordered on the north by the Santa Ynez Mountains and on the south by the Northern Channel Islands. The Northern Channel Islands consist of four offshore islands, from east to west, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel. Although a wide variety of plants and other organisms are present, compared to the ecological diversity found on the mainland, island terrestrial resources are relatively impoverished, with few large mammals and limited freshwater and native plants (Schoenherr et al. 1999). Marine ecosystems are exceptionally productive and complex. Intensive local upwelling, a mix of cold northerly and warm southerly currents, and high basal productivity combine to create one of the most productive marine systems in the world that is home to a diverse assortment of flora and fauna, including kelps, shellfish, birds, fishes, and marine mammals (Schoeherr et al. 1999).

The islands were first settled by maritime hunter-gatherers in boats at least 13,000 years ago (Erlandson et al. 20011; Johnson et al. 2002). During the late Pleistocene colonization and into the Early Holocene, the Northern Channel Islands coalesced into a single island, Santarosae. Rising postglacial sea levels since the Last Glacial Maximum ca. 18,000 years ago have submerged approximately 75 percent of Santarosae and inundated a vast landscape likely once occupied by Native American hunter-gatherers (Reeder-Myers et al. 2015). Over the ensuing millennia, these small colonizing groups transformed into the large, sedentary populations of Chumash Indians that were first contacted by Spanish explorers in AD 1542. Zooarchaeological analyses detail a general shift from early subsistence systems focused on low-trophic level shellfish to an increasing reliance on higher-trophic level finfish and pinnipeds after about 1500 cal BP (Braje 2010; Erlandson et al. 2009; Kennett 2005; Rick et al. 2005). The Chumash developed a sophisticated set of maritime hunting and gathering technologies, occupied large year-around villages, and participated in a complex sociopolitical system. Spanish explorers marveled at the large-scale harvest of local marine resources and the shell bead trading network that formed the basis of geopolitical connections from the islands to the mainland (Gamble 2008; Rick 2007). Although archaeologists have identified a gradual process of subsistence shifts due to natural climatic changes, growing populations and human predation pressure, and technological innovations, the bulk of the Chumash Islander protein diet, according to both historical accounts and zooarchaeological data, came from nearshore and kelp forest fishing by the time the Spanish arrived in Santa Barbara Channel.

The Construction of Maritime Cultural Land and Seascapes
In the last two decades, a variety of archaeological and historical ecological research has demonstrated that ancient peoples, including hunter-gatherer-fishers, acted as much more than passive organisms in an environment, subject to the whims of natural climatic fluctuations (e.g., Grayson 2001; Kirch et al. 1992; Redman 1999; Redman et al. 2004). Rather, indigenous peoples impacted, both positively and negatively, their local and regional environments in a variety of ways. Through hunting, gathering, fire, and other means, for example, hunter-gatherers encouraged the success of economically important plants and animals (e.g., Kay and Simmons 2002; Krech 1999, 2005).

Decoding the modern state of land and seascapes, then, necessitates an understanding of the ways humans influenced their environments through deep time. Interpreting MCLs requires that we track how both natural and anthropogenic forcing, through periods of stasis and change, created modern environmental conditions. Land and seascapes, then, cannot be divorced from the human actions that helped create them. Research on the Northern Channel Islands offer particularly interesting examples of how human hunting and gathering lifeways shaped and re-shaped both terrestrial and kelp forest ecosystems for millennia.

8000 Years of Trophic Cascades and Marine Ecosystem Engineering
For at least 13,000 years, Channel Islanders relied on shellfish as a stable of their protein diet. Lacking the diversity and abundance of terrestrial game on the mainland, Islanders focused their hunting and gathering economies on the rich marine resources of local intertidal and kelp forest ecosystems. At most Early Holocene (11,500-7500 cal BP) sites on the Northern Channel Islands with quantified zooarchaeological data, for example, shellfish such as California mussels (Mytilus californianus) and black abalone (Haliotis cracherodii) dominate the recovered faunal remains and dietary reconstructions suggest that shellfish provided most of the edible meat, usually upwards of 90 percent by weight (Braje 2010; Erlandson et al. 2004, 2009; Kennett 2005; Rick et al. 2005; for a rare exception see Rick et al. 2001). At most Middle (7500-3500 cal BP) and Late Holocene (< 3500 cal BP) sites, shellfish meat becomes less central to Islander diets as finfish and sea mammals provide a growing proportion of the animal protein represented (see Braje 2010; Braje et al. 2007; Erlandson et al. 2009; Kennett 2005; Rick et al. 2005). This is likely a response to growing island populations, the intensification of maritime economies, and expanding diet breath due to resource stress (Kennett 2005). Still, even during the Late Holocene when the bulk of animal proteins came from finfish, Islanders harvested shellfish by the millions and the fishing pressure for highly ranked California mussels, abalone (Haliotis spp.), and other locally available species (see Braje et al. 2007) must have been tremendous (Braje et al. 2011c).

About a decade ago, Erlandson et al. (2005) proposed that Native American hunters may have reduced sea otter populations in local watersheds, which lead to exceptionally productive red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) fisheries. Erlandson et al.’s (2005) hypothesis was proposed to explain the increased abundance of large red abalone shells in many island shell middens between about 8000 and 3500 years ago. Since then, a variety of evidence, including zooarchaeological, paleoecological, historical, and modern catch data, has been gathered that support Erlandson et al.’s (2005) conclusions (Braje et al. 2013a, 2009). Not only do these data explain the large sizes and densities of red abalone shell in island middens during certain intervals, but also the exceptional productivity of the Chumash shellfishery with very little evidence of widespread degradation despite tremendous predation pressure through time (see also Braje 2010). It now seems likely that Native American hunters reduced sea otter (Enhydra lutris) populations in local watersheds as a deliberate strategy to control predation pressure on economically important shellfish species. This enhanced the availability of abalone, California mussel, sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus spp.), and other shellfish and triggered a trophic cascade in local island kelp forest systems, where humans replaced otters as a prime ecosystem predator and kelp forest engineer.

Understanding these dynamics may be essential for helping to manage and restore abalone populations today. Braje et al. (2009), by combining archaeological, ecological, historical, and modern data, argued that for at least 8000 years San Miguel Island waters acted as the nursery for red abalone across the Santa Barbara Channel region. Protecting these waters may be a key component in rebuilding a red abalone fishery based on the successful strategies employed by the Chumash for millennia. In much the same way, Braje et al. (2016) argued that a historical ecological perspective which considers 10,000 years of human fishing for black abalone can help abalone biologists pinpoint the best locations for modern restoration efforts across the Northern and Southern Channel Islands.

The Unnatural History of Channel Island Pinniped Communities
Today, California’s Northern Channel Islands shelter more than 200,000 pinnipeds of six different species (DeLong and Melin 2002) and the far western extent of San Miguel Island, Point Bennett, is one of the largest pinniped breeding grounds in the world. These are remarkable numbers given the wholesale slaughter of marine mammals due to historical overhunting. Most of the pinnipeds that haul out on island beaches and rocky outcrops today were brought to the brink of extinction in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the result of the global fur and blubber trade. Northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) offer an excellent example of how dire the situation was for many of these animals. In 1874, naturalist Charles Melville Scammon wrote:

We have reliable accounts…of the Sea Elephant being taken for its oil as early as the beginning of the present century. At those islands, or upon the coast of the main, where vessels could find shelter from all winds, the animals have long since been virtually annihilated (as quoted in Ellis 2003:192).

By 1884, no elephant seals were seen anywhere by whalers, sealers, or naturalists and eight years later when a Smithsonian Institution expedition located eight elephant seals on Guadalupe Island, they killed seven even though they realized that the animals represented “the last of an exceedingly rare species” (Townsend 1912 as quoted in Ellis 2003:193). The Smithsonian scientists were certain that elephant seals were doomed with extinction and they wanted specimens for the museum before it was too late.

The recovery of many pinniped species in the Pacific and along the shores of California has been a remarkable success story for restoration ecologists and resource managers. State and federal protection has allowed the populations of many species to rebound in rapid fashion, so much so that their growth has become, at times, a point of contention between anglers, regulatory agencies, and scientists (e.g., Cook et al. 2015). Most scientists and managers have assumed that the recovery of these animals followed a “natural” trajectory, and species repopulated the Pacific in ways that mirrored the biogeography and relative abundances of pre-Columbian times. Their resurgence, however, occurred in a demographic vacuum and has created a non-analog system.

Archaeological evidence from both the Channel Islands and California mainland of sea mammal exploitation suggest that their abundances and biogeography may have been fundamentally different in the deep past (see Braje et al. 2011b; Erlandson et al. 2015; Rick et al. 2009, 2011). Zooarchaeological evidence of marine mammal hunting is largely absent in terminal Pleistocene and Early Holocene archaeological sites, however, the presence of barbed and serrated projectile points in many early assemblages suggests that pinniped or sea otter hunting may have been more important than faunal analyses suggest (Braje et al. 2013b). There is limited faunal evidence for sea mammal hunting at most Middle Holocene sites, but a dramatic intensification of pinniped hunting appears between about 1500 and 1200 cal BP (Braje 2010; Kennett 2005). By ~1200 cal BP, perhaps earlier, pinniped populations probably were restricted to offshore islets and rocks due to large island populations and Native hunters, who used redwood plank canoes (tomols) to access hunting grounds. Today, massive pinniped haulouts on island beaches, often near ancient villages and shell middens, suggest that local distributions and behaviors of these animals have shifted since their release from ancient and historical hunting (Braje et al. 2011b). The large, breeding populations of seals and sea lions on the Channel Islands today are a modern creation of human depopulation of the islands and federal and state protections – a novel, non-analog system for at least 10,000 years.

Combined with this, zooarchaeological data suggest that Guadalupe fur seals (Arctocephalus townsendi) were the focus of the prehistoric marine mammal hunting economy in the Late Holocene (Rick et al. 2009). Elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris), on the other hand, are rare in archaeological sites and were probably not abundant prehistorically (Rick et al. 2011), whereas today the situation is reversed. This points to major biogeographic shifts from the past to the present, with Guadalupe fur seals and sea otters the most common targets for prehistoric hunters, now largely absent in Channel Island waters, and northern elephant seals and California sea lions hyper-abundant today, but largely absent from archaeological assemblages. The recovery of these animals from the 18th and 19th century fur and oil trade resulted in a biogeographic reversal and their present distributions are a byproduct of modern management and conservation.

Today, the protection of sea mammals along the Pacific and their growing populations on the Northern Channel Islands presents a set of unique challenges for resource managers. For example, on northwest San Miguel Island at Otter Point, this area was historically occupied by harbor seals, elephant seals, and non-breeding, sub-adult California sea lions, where they were largely restricted to local beaches. Because of overcrowding at the primary rookery at Point Bennett, a large population of breeding California sea lions recently moved into the area and, today, approximately 2500 California sea lion pups are born here annually. Braje et al. (2011a) documented the wide-scale damage these animals can have on archaeological deposits in just a single breeding season as they haul out atop shell midden sites, creating a conflict between the needs of these federally protected animals and the management of non-renewable cultural resources. From just a single archaeological shell midden site, sea mammals caused the erosion and destruction of nearly two million individual shellfish, over 800,000 animal bones, and more than 1700 artifacts in twelve months (Braje et al. 2011a).

Anthropogenic Island Landscapes
Although terrestrial environments were not the focus of prehistoric subsistence systems, the Chumash and their ancestors and later Euro-American ranchers did alter and shape Channel Island landscapes in powerful ways over the last 13,000 years. Preliminary evidence suggests that coincident with the initial arrival of humans in the late Pleistocene and Early Holocene, fire frequency increased and may be linked to anthropogenic landscape burning (Hardiman et al. 2016). While this also could be a signature of natural climatic fluctuations, it may be linked to human landscape clearance and management as such practices were an important part of mainland Chumash resource management practices described in ethnohistoric accounts (Timbrook et al. 1982). More definitive signatures of human burning were identified by Anderson et al. (2010) during the dramatic human population increases of the Late Holocene (ca. 3000 cal BP), which may have been part of landscape management systems to create favorable conditions for corms and other important plant foods (Gill 2013).

Using San Miguel Island as a case study, Erlandson et al. (2005) argued that a combination of natural climatic processes (e.g., sea level stabilization, coastal erosion, climate change, wildfires) combined with anthropogenic burning during the Middle and Late Holocene to accelerate dune building activities. Rapid dune building fundamentally altered the “geography, hydrology, biology and soil regimes of the island” as humans began to play a more central role to shaping local landscapes, especially through episodic vegetation stripping and soil erosion (Erlandson et al. 2005:1234). Dune field landscapes on San Miguel, and perhaps the other Channel Islands, were stabilized by human settlements over the last 3000 to 4000 years as thick deposits of shell and other cultural debris were deposited atop dune sheets, buffering against erosion and encouraging vegetation growth.

By the mid-19th century, indigenous communities had abandoned or were removed from their island homes by Spanish colonizers and the islands converted into commercial ranching outposts. During this interval the most dramatic landscape changes swept across the islands, including the wide-scale introduction of herbivores and exotic plants and deforestation of island oak and pine stands. Island vegetation, dunes, soils, terrestrial ecology, and hydrology were transformed to a degree unprecedented over the last 10,000 years. While landscape changes certainly have been exacerbated by droughts and other natural climatic changes, the scale of change triggered by historical overgrazing and mismanagement has been unprecedented. These changes fundamentally transformed island landscapes, so much so, that is often difficult to decode the pre-Columbian state and establish appropriate restoration baselines and benchmarks.

Decoding Maritime Cultural Landscapes
In the coming years the MCLs concept can continue to be a useful construct in archaeology and anthropology, helping researchers think about the interconnections between land and sea, earth and water, and how ancient maritime peoples interacted with both in complex, interconnected ways. Landscapes for maritime peoples are especially fluid and traverse from the terrestrial to the aquatic, a division that fluctuates daily with the tides and through millennia with sea level oscillations. Defining the cultural landscape for maritime peoples, then, requires a framework that includes the diverse ways in which they inhabit and conceptualize their worlds. More than this, however, we must also consider the ways maritime peoples created and shaped their aquatic and terrestrial worlds, building anthropogenic ecosystems. Historical ecology provides a framework for how landscapes become “cultural” or “anthropogenic” and the complex role humans have played in creating the “natural” world. From such a lens, we can come to a more complete understanding of MCLs.


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