From The Berkeley Voice
July 30, 1999

By James Carter

A thousand years before Indo-European tribes from Asia Minor joined together into one kingdom, groups of people began building shellmounds in the Bay Area.

A capacity crowd paid rapt attention as a broad range of speakers addressed the importance of these remarkable structures during a day-long conference in Emeryville July 25.

The event was sponsored by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, News for Native California, and the University of California Berkeley Archaeological Facility.

Malcolm Margolin, author of the landmark book, "The Ohlone Way," and Publisher at Heyday Books, served as master of ceremonies. The event was held at Galen Rowell's Mountain Light Photography Studio.

Surrounded by magnificent photographs, Margolin painted a tender portrait of the people who once lived on or near the shellmounds as long as 5,000 years ago -- individuals who raised families, built sacred temples, and buried their dead there.

Much of the discussion Sunday focused on the Emeryville mound, one scientists at the conference seemed to agree is one of the most important surviving sites in the Bay Area.

The Bay was once circled by over 425 such structures. However, few shellmounds have survived the steamshovel and the bulldozer, and most have been destroyed and covered with buildings or concrete.

The City of Emeryville is currently considering a development project that could destroy what remains of the ancient shellmound there, according to Stephanie Manning, one of the organizers of the event.

Another large mound in West Berkeley, beneath the parking lot of Spenger's Restaurant and in surrounding areas, was also the subject of discussion Sunday. It's future is also uncertain as scientists test the soil while developers consider plans to build a new parking structure there.

U.C. Professor of Archeology Kent Lightfoot said shellmounds are extremely important on many different levels of science and culture. He said they should no longer be considered "middens," a term used since early European scientists dismissed the California Indians as savages.

Literally translated the term midden means "garbage heap."

Lightfoot rejected such thinking, pointing to the significance of mounds -- many earthen -- across the Americas and around the world.

He said shellmounds contain hearths and the remains of homes, a broad variety of tools and artifacts, and a crucial historical record.

The archelogist said there are temples and sacred burial grounds within the mounds as well, some with hundreds -- even thousands -- of graves.

"(The shellmounds) deserve our respect and our protection as places where the first people in the Bay Area lived and died," Lightfoot said.

The highly-respected archeologist also revealed a mystery that surrounds the ancient sites.

Recent analyses of radio carbon samples from excavations in the East Bay indicate most of the large shellmounds were deserted sometime around AD 700 to AD 1100, he said.

While there is evidence that some of the main shore mound sites were reused after 1100, their occupation "does not appear to be as intense as before," Lightfoot said. What's more, their nature and use appears to have changed.

"It appears that something happened in the Bay Area about 1,000 years ago that altered local native people's use of the shellmounds. Of course this raises a host of questions about what happened.

"Were there, for example, environmental changes, such as the great drought known as the Medieval Climatic Anomaly that created havoc among the bayshore dwellers?" Lightfoot asked.

He also speculated about the possibility there was a "new movement" of people into the East Bay, individuals who brought "new ways of life and a new settlement system" with them.

The possibility that ideological changes emerged that affected how people thought and treated their dead is yet another prospect, according to Lightfoot.

Those and many other significant questions make the shellmounds all the more important, according to the archeologist.

Josh Collins, a Landscape Ecologist with the San Francisco Estuary Institute, presented a hypothetical map of the Bay Area prior to cultural and environmental intervention by Europeans.

Collins said the map was based on research that included soil and bay mud sampling, historical records, interviews with surviving Native Americans at the time the Spanish first arrived here, and a host of other sources.

Emphasizing that all maps change, Collins compared the South Bay with what is now Emeryville, Berkeley, and Albany, both in terms of the shoreline then, plant and animal life, and settlements.

Collins said the South Bay was a "virtual paradise," with a warm climate, wide open spaces and plenty of water and food. The middle East Bay, by contrast, offered less living space given the nearby hills, was often cold and foggy, and provided less extensive sources of food and water.

Yet Collins speculated the area was a perfect spot for trade, providing an easy journey to San Francisco just across the Bay and other settlements. Though he said he was raising questions "out of the area of my expertise," he said living close to the Berkeley Hills may have provided other advantages to the people who lived here as well.

There is some evidence to suggest ancient peoples living near the shellmounds may have managed the growth of plants in both marshes, wetlands, and ponds, Collins said. He speculated such work may have been done in an effort to increase the amount of fish and fowl that gathered there, and to support native species in the Bay.

Such technology could play an important part in protecting the eco systems of the entire Bay, Collins said.

Sandra Sher, a member of the Emeryville Historical Society and author of "Native Legacy of Emeryville," argued that early archeologists were strongly influenced by social Darwinism, a theory she said is based on Euro-Centric and racist views.

Sher said the first scientists to study the indigenous people of California believed all Native Americans were savages, and those that lived here were "the lowest of the low."

As a consequence, Sher said their bias blinded them to the importance of the shellmounds and the cultures of the people who built them.

According to Sher, archeologists judged societies by the level of their technology as viewed through the prism of European values.

The author pointed to basketmaking as an example, telling the audience that the outline of an ancient basket was discovered in a local shellmound.

Since scientists uncovered no evidence of pottery in the shellmounds, turn-of-the-century archeologists -- and most that followed -- considered the Ohlone and other northern California tribes "backward."

Yet Sher said people living in this region made amazing baskets, crafted to carry everything from dirt to water. Baskets were so well designed that the first Californian's cooked in them, she said.

"Why would they make pottery when baskets were much more practical?" Sher asked. She said instead of having to lug around heavy pots made from clay, the Ohlones and others had a lightweight technology perfectly suited to their needs.

Jackie Kehl, an Ohlone with extensive knowledge of her people and shellmounds, said such places are sacred and should be respected and preserved "as much as possible."

Kehl said the Ohlone people have never been officially recognized as a tribe by the United States government, though she said there are some efforts underway to try to change that. As a consequence of the federal government's refusal to acknowledge them as a people, many rights guaranteed to Indians are not honored in northern California.

That makes it all the more difficult to protect ancient shellmounds and the sacred burial grounds there, according to Kehl.

Malcolm Margolin said "For me the major importance of these places is that they're just a little reminder of the people that came before us. They are a place for the historical imagination, a place where we can have the capacity to think about the thousands of years of civilization that preceded us here.

"I would love to see (the shellmounds) not just preserved, I would like to see a park and a monument done -- some kind of public respect for thousands of years of human history."

"People lived here, people's daily lives transpired here, and people came and they went," Margolin said. "And that, too, has a sanctity to it."