Honey goes down the first roads in California

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April 1, 2016 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 


By Honey van Blossom


(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste)



Saturday I joined a Greenbelt Alliance hike through the Black Diamond Mines Regional Park, which is roughly between Clayton and Antioch.  Black Diamond refers to the coal mined there between about 1860 to the early 20th century.

The Greenbelt Alliance has for sixty years worked for the preservation of open spaces and agricultural land.  The hikes it sponsors and co-sponsors take people in the Bay Area into wonderful places – as does the Sierra Club and other public interest organizations.

It had rained heavily a few days before we started on the hike. The hills were vibrantly green.  One of the leaders remarked that the human cones in the eye are more sensitive to green frequencies than any to any other color.  Color isn’t real; that is, all colors are only electromagnetic radiation, which is a spectrum.

We may have more sensitivity to shades of green because human beings evolved in Africa, and it was green.  Prey animals need to see what doesn’t belong in a green background.  Predators usually – not predator birds of course — approach from the ground.  Once a prey animal sees a predator, it then needs to see where to go.

Animals with eyes on the side of the head are prey animals.  Side eye placement allows for greater peripheral or side vision.  This enables the animals to see predators approaching from the side was well as from behind.

Eyes that face forward on the face of the skull suggest a predator.  Forward facing eyes allow for binocular vision, which allows an animal to see depth: cats, monkeys and people, for example, have forward facing eyes.  Human beings are predators.  We can and do eat things that are not meat, which means we can survive when there is not enough prey, but the fact that we are predators explains how roads began: we followed the prey animals that created migratory trails.

Early spring flowers bloomed on our walk, among them cloud lupine, named “cloud” because they are blue-purple and white.  We saw masses of milk thistle, named for the white veins in the plant that was and is used to help with liver problems, California Manroot, lots of Cheeseweed, and Common Miner’s Lettuce.  The Indians introduced the Spanish explorers and the Americans to Miner’s Lettuce – it does not look like lettuce but like soft round leaves – because it is full of Vitamin C and protected those that eat it from scurvy.  A full list of the flowers, with photographs, may be seen at:  http://www.ebparks.org/Assets/files/EBRPD_files/photoguides/wild-flowers/EBRPD_Black_Diamond_Mines_Wildflowers.pdf.

We also saw plenty of yellow mustard.  A persistent story is that the padres spread mustard seeds to mark El Camino Real.  One of the leaders remarked that it comes mixed with grain, so I think the story about the padres is unnecessary.  The weed is invasive and sturdy, and can regenerate after fifty dormant years.  Spanish and American animals that ate grain could have deposited the seeds along paths as they walked along them.

One of the guides is a geologist.  She explained the sand on some of the paths occurred because the area was under the sea for millions of years.  The sea retreated, and it returned, and then it retreated again.  The sea came up to the foothills of the Sierra Mountains.  The hills in the park all tilt in the direction of Mt. Diablo because the earth’s up-thrust from eroded debris from the Sierras all went in that direction, and so do the lignite coal deposits beneath the ground.

Some portions of the paths were steep and eroded by the cattle that graze on the hillsides.  The cattle groaned in warning when we passed nearby.  Cows and bulls are heavy.  The holes that cattle hooves dug into the soft soil are deep.  Along the tops of steep inclines, the going was difficult because of these deep holes.  A generous fellow hiker loaned me one of her hiking poles.  I own hiking poles but didn’t bring mine along out of a fear that more experienced hikers might mistakenly assume I know what I’m doing. My knees burned with pain.  My toes had jammed repeatedly against the hard ends of my boots.  I thought maybe I had permanently damaged them.  A hiker behind me said that we were at the last hill but all that happened was that another and steeper hill emerged when we got to the top.  By the time we finally descended into the parking lot, I was as grateful as if we had reached the Celestial City.

The mustard story told as I walked most perilously around the cattle holes led me to ponder how California’s roads, at least the big roads, began.

Based on soil data, scientists date Mastodon bones found in Carlsbad in San Diego County at from 125,000 years ago to 220,000 years ago, long before people arrived in California.  Mastodons arrived in the Americas during the late Miocene epoch about 5.332 million years ago.  The apes arose and diversified during the Miocene, becoming widespread in the Old World.  By the end of this epoch, the ancestors of humans split from the ancestors of chimpanzees to follow their own evolutionary path.

Mastodons lived in herds and fed on a mixed diet obtained by browsing and grazing.  Most accounts of mastodon gut content identified coniferous twigs.  Other accounts indicate they ate herbaceous vegetation.

Some studies indicate a sudden die-off of megafaunal that indicate a sudden, unknown cataclysmic event not related to human beings.  Most research indicates human beings hunted the megafaunal to extinction.    At any rate, within

3,000 years or less after human beings arrived in the New World, the giant animals became extinct.

During the last great period of glaciation (the Wisconsin, about 16,000 years ago), ocean levels dropped below the continental shelf between Alaska and Siberia and exposed a large continuous landmass called Beringea.  By 10,000 years ago, the ice thawed, preventing further human migration; that is, people arrived here before 10,000 years ago, probably no earlier than 16,000 years ago unless they came by boat.

Some archeologists do believe the Indians may have arrived by boat from the Pacific Islands or from Siberia.

On Santa Rosa Island, one of the Channel Islands forty miles from Santa Barbara, nearly 20 sites have been found that reveal signs of prehistoric human activity.  At least four of the sites are dated from 11,000 to 12,000 years ago.    Arlington Springs Man is so far the oldest human remains found in North America, discovered in 1959 and dated to 13,000 years ago.  Arlington Springs Man lived on present-day Santa Rosa Island, California, at the end of the Pleistocene.  The existence of Arlington Springs Man bones on Santa Rosa Island could support the idea that people arrived by boat.  Just as easily, however, people could have used boats to get to the island.  The island then was part of one big island 6 miles off the coast.   Arlington Springs Man didn’t come by himself from Siberia or the Pacific Islands or wherever people came from: there were people in California 13,000 years ago.

Swimming mammoths beat human beings to the Channel Islands, arriving on the islands about 20,000 years ago, maybe longer.  They did not have to swim that far because the islands were then closer to the mainland when sea levels were lower.   Approximately 20,000 to 40,000 years ago when sea level was about 300 feet lower than it is today, the four northern islands joined together to form an Ice Age “super island” known as Santarosae. This island was only 6 miles from the mainland at its closest distance. As the ice sheets and glaciers melted and the sea level rose, only the highest parts of Santarosae remained as modern islands.

As sea levels rose, the mammoths natural selection meant the large animals evolved into pygmy mammoths because of the limit of vegetation on the islands.

It is generally assumed the first people followed animal trails; that is “the migrating buffalo, deer elk and horses carved them out. The trails used most by these animals always led the easiest way to the nearest water, grass, and lowest Mountain passes and afforded a wide range of view for protection against predators. Elk often traveled hundreds of miles over seemingly impenetrable mountains in their seasonal migration from summer to winter pasturage and back. Their tracks wore into trails following the most traversable routes to necessary grazing and water.”

The Holocene Epoch – the present era of the earth’s history – began 11,700 years before 2000 AD, when the end of the last glaciation caused sea levels to rise.  Some native Indian creation stories begin with a great flood, a watery expanse, and that may be as close as we get to California literature that describes the way this region looked during the first seven or eight or nine thousand years of human occupation.

California’s Indian oral literature is silent about the very large beasts that co-existed with human beings but in Southern France, about 30,000 years ago, people painted the walls of the Chauvet Cave with large horses, red bears, a Mammoth, panthers, bison, lions, fighting rhinoceros, a large extinct moose, an owl.  Cave paintings dating about 10,000 years old in Algeria show giant buffalo, elephants, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus – animals that no longer exist in this now-desert region.  Forty thousand year old paintings in an Indonesian cave show a wild pig with curved tusks.

The first people to arrive in Alta California did not create rock art until after the large animals had become extinct, although they arrived here before the giant beasts became extinct.  They painted fish, deer and antelope. California Indian creation myths do not describe the great animals that lived in California when they arrived but, rather, animals that existed after the extinction of those animals.  California Indian rock paintings includes cougars, lizards, ducks, fish, crows, coyotes, dolphins, eagles and condors, as do their oral myths.

The La Brea Tar Pits on Wilshire, which is located on what had been an Indian trail from the village of Yang-Na – Yang-Na was where City Hall is now – contain fossils of giant animals that lived in Southern California but are now extinct and have been extinct for 10,000 to 11,000 years. Right at the front on Wilshire stand statues of American mastodons, which were a distant relative of the elephant.   Also found in the Tar Pits are saber-toothed cats, Camelops Hesternus – a camel that weighed 1800 pounds, the Dire Wolf, Harlan’s ground sloth that may have weighed up to 1500 pounds. Bison Antiquus entered North America 200,000 years ago.    Artists’ re-creations of some of these animals may be seen at: http://www.tarpits.org/la-brea-tar-pits/timeline.   Teratornis (huge birds of prey.  Their wingspan was about 12 feet) was also found in the tar pits.  The California Condor has a 9.8 feet and weighs up to 26 pounds and it still exists.

The only person found there is the La Brea Woman, dated to approximately 10,000 years ago, found with the remains of a domestic dog.  Forensic artist Melissa Cooper reconstructed La Brea Woman’s face and, unsurprisingly, the face was that of an Indian woman.

It may only be coincidence that these animals became extinct within a thousand years or maybe two or three thousand years, after human beings arrived in North America.  Climate change could have killed them off.

I don’t find this, the most accepted theory, makes sense.  Mastadon antiquus was able to survive in Alaska for a long time during the period of maximum glaciation because it pulled down tree branches with its trunk.  If it survived ice and cold, it should have survived in the beginning years of the Holocene Era.  The insular sloths of the Caribbean remained to approximately 6,000 years ago, about the time human beings arrived in the Caribbean.  Small sloths that spend most of their time in trees, making it more difficult for people to find them, still exist.

I find the most persuasive theory is that human beings in California – as in other places on the planet – killed the large prey animals and replaced the giant predator animals and birds as their primary predators.  The extinction of the very large prey animals would have contributed to the extinction of the giant predator animals.

The information we have about the natural world when the first people came here comes from fossils and microfossils. They indicate California was cooler and more humid at the end of the last glacial period than it is today. Southern California had coniferous forests, mixed evergreen, chaparral woodlands.

In the Northern California Mountains, as moisture increased between 12,100 and 9,800 years ago, three pine species became increasingly common.  About 9,800 years ago, oak and other chaparral species expanded as the climate became drier and warmer.   Yosemite had a cool, wet environment about 12,000 years ago.  The current vegetation is similar to what it was after the climate became drier.  In the Central Valley, from about 7,000 to 4,000 years ago, high levels of pollen from herbaceous species and decreased pine pollen suggest expansion of grassland/savanna vegetation.

Raymond F. Dasmann, in his The Destruction of California (Collier Books 1966):

“The lands of California when man first arrived were far different from today.  Thus, during glacial times the Channel Islands were connected to the mainland coast, and the Gulf of California extended up into the present Salton Sea.  The volcanic Cascade Range went through cycles of great activity, reaching a shattering crescendo when Mount Mazama in southern Oregon blew its top, collapsed into itself, and formed the setting for Crater Lake…. During the major ice advances, glaciers blanketed much of the Sierra Nevada, south of what is now Donner Pass, and in places formed continuous ice mantles.  On the east side of the mountains glaciers dropped icebergs into a vastly larger Mono Lake, and helped to carve and form Lake Tahoe. Following the last, Mankato, ice advance, when man was established on the California scene, the climate began to change from cool and humid to warm and dry…”

A rise in atmospheric CO2 levels caused the thaw in the last glaciation.  I have not found any scientific arguments to support my thought that perhaps all the deliberate fire setting by human beings in Africa, Asia, North America, and Australia could have created that rise in CO2.  The Indians also set fires deliberately, as hominids had been doing for a very long time, which further altered the state’s ecology and could have made survival of the giant beasts more difficult.

Chaparral, woodland and coniferous forests are dense, difficult to pass through.  Deer make slight impact when they pass over land – at least, slight when compared to the impact that the giant beasts would have made.  For as long as the huge animals existed, the Indians would have followed them to hunt them.

Mammoths are relatives of elephants.  Elephants follow migration trails.  In 2008, elephants marched through the Mfuwe Lodge in Zambia after the hotel was built on their migration trail.  Mammoth trails would have been wide, and if my experience with cattle holes after a heavy rain in the Black Diamond Mines Regional Park is instructive, those trails would also have been deep when the climate was cooler and there were heavier rains than there are now.

The silence of native stories about the large beasts and the absence of mega-fauna in rock art could mean there were no large beasts by the time the Indians arrived, even though the dates of Indian arrival (so far) and mega-fauna extinction coincide.  The silence could also mean that we have not yet found rock paintings that may, like the Chauvet Cave, depict the giant animals.  Road and building excavations may reveal ancient art.  If they exist and are underwater, perhaps if there are still people then, we may find cave drawings in the next glaciation.

The silence of native art may also mean that as the giant animals disappeared – for whatever reason they became extinct — the native people forgot about them after several generations.

In California, there seems to have been no reason for megafauna extinction except that human predators killed them off.  The climate was excellent for grazing animals in most parts of California.  Elephants continue — insofar as human beings allow them to continue — to live in drier regions of Africa.  People lived, and no cataclysmic event killed people after they arrived here.  On the Channel Islands, mastodons evolved into little mastodons because of the limits of island vegetation, so there is no obvious reason mainland megafauna could not have evolved to accommodate the warming climate.

I found so far no study showing Indian health changes that early (10,000 years ago), but if there are such studies, or if there will be one day such studies, they will probably indicate a very heavily meat based diet for the first thousand years or so after they arrived.  One monster beast could have fed a village for weeks.   Scientific theories that people were not responsible for megafauna extinction seem to me to have a political agenda; that is, an assumption that the native people were more spiritual, more integrated with nature, then we are and so should not be blamed.

The native people were more spiritual and more integrated with nature than we are.  Nonetheless, they were predators same as us and they were smarter than other animals, same as us, and they changed the environment because as a result of decisions they made.

No matter what killed off the monster beasts the smaller animals – deer, elk, antelope – would have used their trails.  The megafauna crushed plants beneath their enormous feet.  They made highways through the chaparral.

If my experience struggling to climb and to descend hills with paths deeply eroded by cattle is instructive – cattle weigh up to 1600 pounds, Mastodons weight up to 15,000 pounds – the migratory paths of the giant animals would have been deep and wide.

The Spanish explorers followed Indian trails in the 1770s through California, guided by Indians.  The padres established the San Gabriel Mission on the site of an Indian village.  Fr. Crespi, who accompanied the Fages expedition in 1772, urged that a mission be established at a place near the confluence of the Los Angeles River and the Arroyo Seco, which was about where the largest Tongva village – Yang-Na – was sited.  Instead, Governor of Alta California Felipe de Neve founded the pueblo of Los Angeles near Yang-Na, which was located about where City Hall now stands.

A system of Indian trails went through Yang-Na as far north as Yosemite and, in the Northeast, as far as Oakland, and out to the Pacific Ocean on the west and to the Mojave on the east.  The three branches from Yang-Na became El Camino Viejo, which may in part have become El Camino Real, the route between the missions.

The trails that became the Cahuenga Pass, Ventura Boulevard, Highway One, I-5, and Sunset Boulevard probably should be more historically accurately named as Mammoth Highway, or possibly Giant Sloth Road or Bison Antiquus Boulevard.

California’s roads, which follow the Spanish and Mexican roads, which followed animal trails, may be a million years old.

Assuming that the first people significantly changed California’s landscape through burning and hunting, then there may be drawn from that conclusion a corollary: the successful human adaption to changing environments and the increasing population of human beings as the predator at the top of the food chain has meant we have changed the earth’s ecologies and diminished the viability of other species just as soon and whenever as there were enough of us.

Selected Sources:    

George C. Frison. (August 2000), Prehistoric Human and Bison Relationships on the Plains of North America, Edmonton, Alberta: International Bison Conference

Felix Riesenberg, The Golden Road: the Story of California’s Mission Trail (McGraw Hill 1962)

http://popular-archaeology.com/issue/summer-2015/article/mastodons-disappeared-from-ancient-beringia-before-humans-arrived.  (Retrieved 3/19/2016).

http://articles.latimes.com/1989-12-27/business/fi-1158_1_coal-mining. (Retrieved 3/19/2016).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arlington_Springs_Man.  (Retrieved 3/21/2016)

http://www.ida.net/users/lamar/trails.html.  (Retrieved 3/19/2016).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_history_of_indigenous_peoples_of_the_Americas#Background.  (Retrieved 3/19/2016)

http://www.amnh.org/explore/news-blogs/research-posts/new-findings-american-mastodons-lived-in-the-north-during-brief-warm-interval. (Retrieved 3/21/2016)


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