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Podcast: Ancient Paleolithic Skeletal Remains

By The Paleo Diet Team
February 27, 2014
Podcast: Ancient Paleolithic Skeletal Remains image

Dr. Loren Cordain: I'm Loren Cordain, Founder of the Paleo movement.

Shelley Schlender: I'm Shelley Schlender. This is the Paleo Diet Podcast for September 2013. Coming up, Loren goes online on his computer to tell us about the most ancient human bones ever found in North America. They're over 13,000 years old.

She was a seafaring woman who traveled to an island off the coast of California. As Loren talks about her, I'll also share what she and her clan probably liked to eat. Here's a clue. It's not far off from a modern-day paleo barbecue.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Hey, Shelley. I'm very much interested in archaeology and anthropology. Google Earth is an amazing tool that we all have at our fingertips. I was interested in the very first colonization of North America. The first skeletal remains that have ever been found in North America, not South America ... There's an earlier site in South America. The first site in North America that has been definitively dated is on Santa Rosa Island in the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California.

Shelley Schlender: That's the place that we all want to be: Santa Barbara, LA.

Dr. Loren Cordain: What's very cool about this ... Five of these islands have become a national park, and so they are protected. It's just an incredible environment to be able to look at what Southern California was before we had freeways, and cities, and civilization. These islands are a refuge for the plants and the animals that were originally found in this area.

Shelley Schlender: You say that there was a human remain found there that was a person who was not eating Yoplait yogurt?


Dr. Loren Cordain: That's absolutely right. There's a canyon here, and I'll show it to you ... a place called Arlington Canyon. The skeletal remains were actually a femur, and they were found in, I believe, the late 1960s. It was first called Arlington Springs Man. A later reanalysis of the femur found out that it was a woman. You can see here ... I'm showing Shelley this island, Santa Rosa Island. We're googling it right now ... Arlington Canyon right here.

Shelley Schlender: It goes inland from the coast.

Dr. Loren Cordain: It does. It's a canyon that goes inland from the coast, and I can show you exactly where the fossil was found.

Shelley Schlender: As you're doing this ... If this was part of California that you could allow development on, this would be million-dollar property.

Dr. Loren Cordain: This would be a million-dollar property. They'd want to put a hotel right on this beach. Look. Here's a pristine beach where Arlington Canyon flows.

Shelley Schlender: It's so close to Santa Barbara.

Dr. Loren Cordain: It is. You can see ... There's Santa Barbara, and it's probably, maybe, 30 miles away from Santa Barbara. The Park Service has actually done an incredible job restoring Santa Rosa Island. In the 1800s cattle ranchers had it, and they brought in sheep, and they brought in feral pigs, and there were cattle on it. So, once the Park Service got it, there was an act made in Congress to turn this into a national park in 1980, and they rounded up all the feral sheep. About a decade later they went in and they rounded up all the feral pigs.

Now what we're seeing is an ecosystem that emulates, at least closely, what it was 13,000 years ago. So what a success story.

Shelley Schlender: That is a success story, but now I'm starting to worry about this woman from 13,000 years ago, because if she didn't have sheep, and she didn't have feral pigs, and all the birds were nesting a few islands away, what did she eat?

Dr. Loren Cordain: Okay. Let's go back to Santa Rosa Island and let's go to Arlington Canyon, and let me show you where they found her. There's springs and there's fresh water. So that's, in all likelihood, why she was here, was because there was a water source.


Shelley Schlender: That's a really pretty flower. So there's some flowers that grow on this island. She had flowers; she could decorate herself.

Dr. Loren Cordain: This is what it looks like ... scrub, and bush, and whatever. Let's go back to your other question. What in the world was this woman doing on this island 13,000 years ago? How did she get there and what did she eat?

She obviously wasn't there by herself. She came in with a group of hunter-gatherers. To get to this island, as you mentioned, it's 30 miles by sea. What kind of boats did they have 13,000 years ago? In all likelihood she had a dugout canoe. What they did is, they took a great, big log. They put fire in the log to help burn it out. They scraped it out with primitive adzes that were made from shells and stones ... an arduous process. So she did that, and they had these dugouts that carried multiple people; so maybe 6, or 8, or even 10 people could get into one of these.

They paddled them, and they came over here, and they colonized this island. Their population that was here 13,000 years ago probably came here seasonally They were probably after fatty mammals: sea lions, elephant seals, because there's a lot of blubber on them, and they were looking for food that contained fat. So that was probably one of the things.

Another unusual situation about Santa Rosa Island is, believe it or not, Shelley, there were pygmy mammoths that were living there at the same time that this woman and her population came on board.

Shelley Schlender: 13,000 years ago there were little, tiny, cute, little elephants?

Dr. Loren Cordain: That's right, and the most complete elephant carcass ever found in North America of a pygmy mammoth was found. See. There's a big sand dune right here? That's where it was found, right at the edge of the sand dune. The pygmy mammoth stood about 4 to 6 feet tall, so it was about the size of a cow.


How in the world did mammoths ever get to Santa Rosa Island, if there's a 30-mile distance from the mainland to Santa Rosa Island? You can see that. Prior to 50,000 years ago, if we go into space here ... We're googling Earth, and Shelley can see it. Any of the listeners, you can do it yourself. If you look here, you can see that there actually is a much larger island. Can you see this when I make it out?

Shelley Schlender: It can. It looks like there's an area where those islands are which is more shallow. It's not very far under water, because it used to stick out above the water.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Right. Exactly. You can see here that it's not very far under water as well. If we move over here to Anacapa, you can see that the outline of the island ... When the sea levels were about 350 feet lower, when we had a lot of glaciers that were holding up the water, you can see that the distance from Oxnard now, or Mugu Canyon, or these points right here, is only about 6 miles.

50-60 thousand years ago normal-sized, huge mammoths were living on the coast and they could smell all of this wonderful vegetation that hadn't been exploited. So a group of mammoths swam the 6 miles from here to there and they colonized this island. When mammals go from the mainland to an island, small mammals get bigger and large mammals get smaller. There's a rule for this. I think it's Frost's Rule, or something. The deer mice that colonized this island ended up getting really, really big, and the elephants that colonized it got really, really small.

So, going back to our woman that lived in this canyon, Arlington Woman, in all likelihood they probably encountered pygmy mammoths when they first got here.

Shelley Schlender: And giant mice.


Dr. Loren Cordain: And giant mice. The diet that they were eating clearly was a diet that was high in animal protein and animal fat. When you think about it, to get here, they had to come from the coast and they could see these islands as they were going down the coast. Where did these people that were in canoes ultimately come from? 13-14 thousand years ... You can see that there's a land mass called Beringia. You can see the outline of it here.

At one time Asia and North America were connected. The thinking now is that people that had canoes were just following the coastline around. They were hunting seals, and walruses, and other fatty animals, which is a good animal, and lo and behold, they came around here to Alaska. They went down the coast of North America. This is the oldest site in North America, the Channel Islands, for humans.

The oldest site that we have in all of the Americas is a place called Monteverde, in Chile. This is dated to about 14,000 years ago. They took their little canoes and followed the entire continent down to South America. So if they were in South America by 14,000 years ago, it tells us they had to have been in California, and Oregon, and Washington, and Alaska at about the same time or maybe slightly earlier.

Shelley Schlender: Unless, of course, they decided to paddle and sail all the way across from China and the Polynesias. Who knows?

Dr. Loren Cordain: There's no evidence that they were sailing at the time. If we look at hunter-gatherers in North America, like, Columbus first came over here, they described the watercraft, and the watercraft were always canoe-type situations where they paddled boats. There was never any description of sailing per se; so we think that they were just probably following the coastline.

Shelley Schlender: ... and getting plenty of good food to eat, which is a little bit more challenging for us today. I'm thinking about that seal fat and blubber. There's a chance that the kind of fat that was stored in the fat tissue of those animals was very different than the kind that's stored in most livestock produced today. Not only are there a lot more pollution that get into the fat of animals, but also the amount of Omega-6 fatty acid that's in a pig today is much higher in their fat than it is if the pig is foraging on its own. The fat in its fat tissue is way different than if its fed in a confined livestock situation.


Dr. Loren Cordain: That's right. So these maritime people, they were preying upon fish, no doubt fatty fish: salmon, seals, walruses. They probably weren't able to get whales at the time, because they didn't have the technology to kill a large whale. They didn't have boats that were that big; but they were probably going after just about everything else. When we look at the types of fats that are found in maritime animals ... We call it blubber, insulation for the animal in a cold water environment, it contains primarily monounsaturated fats.

Shelley Schlender: That's olive oil.

Dr. Loren Cordain: That's olive oil. Exactly. One of the reasons for monounsaturated fats in blubber is that, when it gets cold, it doesn't get hard ... like in butter. It gets hard, so it would influence the movement of the mammal. So they've evolved this insulating fat made out of monounsaturated fats. What we've found ... We actually have clinical trials now where scientists have fed people seal oil and seal meat. Just like with salmon and so forth, it does all those good things. It's anti-inflammatory, because it's high in Omega-3s. It tends to lower blood cholesterol, because it's high in monounsaturated fats.

I have no doubt that the Santa Rosa Island Woman was probably fairly well-nourished. How they found this femur ... An archaeologist back in the 60s ... I think his name was Orr. He was basically surveying this island to look for archaeologic sites. At the time the Navy had a base here. So he got a road grader. He wanted to make a road across Arlington Canyon, so you could get to the other side. As he was digging this road with a grader, he cut into the earth, and he could see the bone sticking out of the earth.


The cool thing about it was, he had enough vision that he didn't pull the bone immediately out of the dirt, which most archaeologists would have done. They cut a big piece of earth containing the bone out, and then he packed it with plaster. He had the foresight to put that big block of earth in a museum. You go back to 2005, 40 years later. Now we have the technology to accurately date this. With modern technology it was dated to, I think, 13.1 thousand years ago. So this was just a phenomenal fossil find.

I guess the other thing that it begs the issue, Shelley, for listeners here ... The technology to get to this isolated island means that, obviously, they had to have boats. Also, if we go back all the way up to Alaska, they had to have fire. You can see here, in Beringia, when we're at 60 and 70 degrees north latitude, you can't get on the ocean, with glaciers, and not have fire.

Shelley Schlender: That's right. You mentioned that one of the things that they had to do was to hollow out a log, a big log, to make their boat, and they did that by burning the center of the boat.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Right. They didn't have matches in those days, so how in the world did they start a fire? They had to have fire to be at that far north latitude, because they would freeze if they didn't have fire. The most common technique to make fire is called a "fire drill," a little cylindrical piece of wood that is rubbed into another piece of wood that has a notch in it. By rubbing your hands up and down this little drill, doing it fast enough, if you have enough persistence, you can get a little bit of hot ash that starts to smoke. Then you have tinder, and you can blow on it.


In all likelihood, if we go back to this very first person that was down here on Santa Rosa Island, not only did they have boats, but they had a means to make fire.

Shelley Schlender: If they had a means to make fire, not only could they make boats, but they could also do barbecue.

Dr. Loren Cordain: They were doing barbecue. In all likelihood, when they killed these maritime animals, they had a big feast. Speculating ... The fossil was found close to the sea, close to a freshwater area. So she was probably harvesting plants that may have grown along that little springs, or pool. They were probably consuming shellfish that they could gather in the ocean. If it was the time of year when sea birds were there, they may have consumed eggs. If they were lucky enough, and somebody could spear a seal, they probably would have had roasted seal, and walrus, and whatever, and even ... If they were there at the same time ... these pygmy mammoths that were on the island.

Shelley Schlender: Gee, I can't get the seal meat anywhere around here. How would I replicate this in some way, if I wanted to have her style of a feast?

Dr. Loren Cordain: I think certainly you could have barbecued fish. That would be a great thing to do.

Shelley Schlender: You're not talking slathered with sweet, sugary, tomato sauce either.

Dr. Loren Cordain: No. You can replicate ... have yourself a nice barbecued fish meal, or you could get shellfish, and clams, and mussels, and other things. Abalone was found in California. So it wouldn't surprise me if they were consuming abalone as well, particularly at these islands. Abalone makes a wonderful barbecue meal.

Shelley Schlender: So lots of seafood fish. We can do the Paleos one up from 13,000 years ago, because now we have delectable lettuce and other vegetables that we can add in, and a nice, big salad ... and olive oil.

Dr. Loren Cordain: That's right. That'd be a very good idea, and I think that would make a wonderful barbecue.


That's all for this edition of the Paleo Diet Podcast. Visit my website,, for past episodes and for hot links to the experts and studies that we talked about today.

Shelley Schlender: Our theme music was written and produced by Chapman Stick Soloist, Bob Culbertson.

Dr. Loren Cordain: If you want to send me questions or comments, the place to go is

Shelley Schlender: For the Paleo Diet Podcast, I'm Shelley Schlender.

Dr. Loren Cordain: I'm Loren Cordain.

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