When explorers and pioneers visited California in the 1700s and early 1800s, they were astonished by the abundance of birds, elk, deer, marine mammals, and other wildlife they encountered. Since then, people assumed such faunal wealth represented California's natural condition a product of Native Americans' living in harmony with the wildlife and the land and used it as the baseline for measuring modern environmental damage.
The news release below is a story by University of Utah Public Relations science writer Lee Siegel, published this month in the spring 2006 issue of Continuum, the magazine of the University of Utah.
That assumption now is collapsing because University of Utah archaeologist Jack M. Broughton spent seven years from 1997 to 2004 painstakingly picking through 5,736 bird bones found in an ancient Native American garbage dump on the shores of San Francisco Bay. He determined the species of every bone, or, when that wasn't possible, at least the family, and used the bones to reconstruct a portrait of human bird-hunting behavior spanning 1,900 years.
Broughton concluded that California wasn't always a lush Eden before settlers arrived. Instead, from 2,600 to at least 700 years ago, native people hunted some species to local extinction, and wildlife returned to "fabulous abundances" only after European diseases decimated Indian populations starting in the 1500s.
Broughton's study of bird bones, published in Ornithological Monographs, mirrors earlier research in which he found that fish such as sturgeon, mammals such as elk, and other wildlife also sustained significant population declines at the hands of ancient Indian hunters.