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Dateline: Swimming Pool Dig Yields New Knowledge About Yolo Indian Economy

October 23, 1998

Most of us learned in fourth grade that Northern Californian Indians used a barter system, but UC Davis anthropologists have unearthed new insight that may change that chapter in history.

From a site 13 miles from campus, Professor Robert Bettinger and his graduate student, Eric Wohlgemuth, found evidence last summer of a complex hunter-gatherer society where a money economy was clearly thriving.

The analysis of materials from the site, to be used by Wohlgemuth in his dissertation, will provide insight into how these native populations affected the environment of this region. As part of the wider campus environmental initiative, he received a $2,000 grant from the Public Service Research Program.

This is the second time bioregion grants have been issued to graduate students; they were also awarded in 1995. The Bioregion Grants Program makes possible additional graduate student participation in the Putah Cache Bioregion Project, which is sponsored by the Commission on the Environment.

The award will enable Wohlgemuth to send charcoal and obsidian samples from the site to labs for radio carbon and obsidian hydration dating.

"His work will tell us more about native peoples, their contributions to this region and past flora and fauna," said Joyce Gutstein, associate director of the Public Service Research Program.

Yolo residents Greg and Marie Tornincasa were in the process of having an in-ground pool dug in their back yard in May when contractors uncovered the 400- to 500-year-old Native American village, probably inhabited by the Patwin tribe. After the coroner and Native American Heritage Commission were contacted, the anthropology department was called in to recover artifacts.

For six days, volunteers, ranging from undergraduate students to professors, spent 240 hours on site collecting materials. Along with arrowheads, spear points, cutting tools, beads, and animal and human skeletal remains, excavators uncovered delicate chert drills.

These drills are an important discovery because they are believed to have been used to perforate marine clam shells to make beads, which became the currency.

"We have evidence that the community manufactured its own money rather than having beads brought in from the coast by the Pomo Indians," Bettinger said.

"Contrary to previous thought, it's becoming increasingly clear that these northern societies were very complex, as much as groups like the Chumash in Southern California," he said.

The development of a money economy rather than a barter system evolved fairly late, Bettinger said. Once adopted, however, this economy is believed to have caught on quickly, adding to the complexity of relatively large Patwin communities of approximately 1,500 people that lived along the Sacramento River, including portions of Yolo, Colusa and Solano counties.

The Patwin, along with all other Californian tribes except the Mohave, stand out in history for another reason as well.

Nearly 2,000 years after other North American tribes adopted an agricultural existence, Bettinger said, the Patwin still relied on hunting and gathering as a primary means of obtaining food. Their communities are also among the largest known to belong to hunter-gatherer groups.

"These people weren't replaced by agriculturalists," Bettinger said. "They thrived and continued to grow until European civilizations took over."

A handful of other Patwin sites dating to this period have been discovered in the past few decades, including one on campus several years ago.

However, due to the sensitivity of the discovery, an excavation to uncover additional artifacts was closed, Bettinger said.

Although such archaeological finds are gold mines of information about this region's past, these discoveries also touch off long-standing disputes between Native American groups and archaeologists over the disturbance of historic ruins and, specifically, ancestral remains.

Until recent years, Native Americans had little voice in determining how the remains were handled, said Larry Myers, head of the Native American Heritage Commission.

The organization is responsible for finding the most likely descendants whenever native remains are found. They then bring the landowner or developer who has discovered the remains into contact with the descendant.

"It's a valuable process that brings the Indian and non-Indian together to discuss their perspectives and empowers the most likely descendants," Myers said. "And if there is no agreement reached, the law provides a final resting place for the remains."

In this case, the most likely descendant has allowed UC Davis to study the artifacts for a year, after which the skeletal remains and associated grave goods will be reburied on the Tornincasa property in a secluded area.

Bettinger and Wohlgemuth said they hope that the landowners will donate the remainder of the materials to the university.

We can learn a lot about their remote manufacture of obsidian and beads just from the debris," Bettinger said.

"The department is interested in developing collections like this, not into the bowels of Young Hall [where artifacts are currently curated], but for a real museum of anthropology that features what we do best."

Graduate student Wohlgemuth emphasized the importance of this discovery.

There aren't too many sites of this time period for us to examine," he said.

"With the environmental records we have of California within the last 2,000 years, we can gain a good look from this site of hunter-gatherers at just the time their communities became very complex."

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