On a clear day, Catalina Island stretches across the horizon twenty-five miles off the Huntington Beach coast. Many times I have walked the dog along the beach and gazed out at the far island. Many times I have ridden my bike from Newport Bay to Alamitos Bay past the wetlands, including the largest, Bolsa Chica. I have taken the ferry across to Catalina where we wondered around the small town, rode up to the Wrigley mausoleum, and bussed to the horse ranch far inland. I have sailed with friend across the twenty-five miles of ocean, dodging the big ships headed for the combined harbors of Long Beach and Los Angeles. We have anchored for perfects nights at the isthmus. Once, very drunk, I proclaimed that the island is where they should spread my ashes.

Thus when the book Islanders & Mainlanders: Prehistoric Context for the Southern California Bight hit my desk, I put aside the technical literature on mining and for the last few days have read it cover to cover. Here is a fascinating archeological account of the islands off the coast of Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and Orange County. These are the central questions the book addresses:

A rock art site on San Nicolas Island, a shell midden on Santa Monica Bay, and a flaked stone scatter in the Mojave Sink may seem disparate and seem to share little in common. If our analysis is correct, however, they lie within a single cultural tradition. The cultures of this tradition depended on access to widely spaced resources, the movement of people over hundreds of miles, and a common view that “strangers” lurked to the north and south. How did such adaptations come about? What social institutions allowed such people to move between social groups? How were enemies recognized and dealt with? These are interesting questions, and ones that the archaeology of southern California can answer.

The book succeeds in answering these and many other fascinating questions. Starting with an overview of island cultures worldwide, narrowing the focus to the coast-island communities up and down the west coast of north America from Mexico to Alaska, and then detailing the archaeology of the islands off the coast of southern California, we are swept along by fine prose, deep theory, and commanding perspective.

Not much in the way of accounts of individual digs, or dreary lists of bone distributions in particular middens in this book. Rather the authors set out to establish an intellectual framework for interpreting the admittedly scattered and sparse archaeological evidence of the region. Seems sea levels have risen significantly in the Holocene, probably covering with water many a site where early settlers in the region lived and foraged.

Admittedly there is little of any significance to mines or miners in this book. Yet I submit that an understanding of the methods of archaeology will serve many parts of the mining industry well: think only of interactions with aboriginal communities worldwide that is no a staple of developing a new mine. Thus justified, let me proceed with my review.

The story is quickly told: starting as early as 14,000 years ago, and certainly in the early Holocene, Paleo-Indian moved into the area in small groups, probably foraging far and wide along the coast, on the islands, and even up into the deserts of the inland.

With the onset of the Middle Holocene, about 6,800 before the present (B.P.), rising sea levels began to stabilize, rich estuarine habitats developed, and populations began to increase. The islands were probably inhabited only seasonally, but inland semi-sedentary settlements of up to 100 people indicate residential base camps. Technology changed: mortars and pestles appeared and acorns were exploited as a food source. There is also evidence of regional economic activity: sites on San Nicolas Island include objects made on non-local obsidian, chert, and fused shale. Mining, or at least quarrying, had begun.

In this period, we begin to see the incursion of distinct groups. Linguistic evidence (from the early missionaries) and archaeological evidence tells this story: The Chumash groups were in the Santa Barbara region along with Diegueno groups in the San Diego area speaking languages of the Hokan family. Inbetween were groups speaking Uto-Aztecan languages like groups far to the east. Skeletal remains from 3,000 B.P. indicate population replacement. Did the Shoshonean people come from the east driving a wedge between the original inhabitants?

The late Holocene was a time of rapid change in the area. Populations increased and a greater diversity of resources was tapped. Implements found in digs include arrow points, fishhooks, scrapers, and storage implements such as baskets.

Then the Spaniards came and now we have Hollywood, multi-million dollar homes on the bluff above Newport Bay, and me riding my bicycle along the beach.

The question that fascinates me and that is addressed in much detail in the book is what climatic changes occurred through these 10,000 and more years, and what affect that had on the people and cultures of the area. I had always wondered why the foot of the cliff along the Huntington Beach beach are higher and set far back from the waves. The book suggests that about 2,700 years ago sea levels were as much as 1 to 3 meters higher than they are now.

Of course at the beginning of the Holocene sea levels were much lower and many of the coastal islands were part of the mainland. Fact is temperatures and sea levels have fluctuated significantly in the last 10,000 years and this has affected humans along the coast and on the islands. Their population densities went up and down, their ways of making a living changed, and intruders came an took away their territories. Current global warming will change things—maybe take the waves back to the foot of the cliffs—and the current way of life in Orange County will be different. There will be winners and losers and future generations of archaeologist will write books about the demise of industries, language drift, population movements, and ways of getting around. Let us hope they are not writing of invasions and the collapse of societies as is the story in this book.

By way of full disclosure, I note that I got this book and others I have yet to read, by kind consideration of SRI Press in Tucson, Arizona. They found me on the web via the many things I post. I looked at their website of Statistical Research, Inc. where many of the book’s contributors work. I noted a long interest in archaeology and my Orange County residence, and this book came. I thank them. In accordance with my standard approach I write about this book because it interests me, and because I think it may interest you, not because I got it free, although having read it I would gladly pay for it.