Anthropology Department | Dec. 3, 2012 | Spotlight

Picture of CSULA crew at the Lost Indian Cave discovered in San Nicolas Island.
Working with the U.S. Navy, the CSULA crew labored tirelessly to scoop out more than 40,000 buckets or a million pounds of sand from a buried cavern on the San Nicolas Island.

A storybook discovery

CSULA team helps dig up the inspiration for the ‘Island of the Blue Dolphins’

Since the 1960s, many have read the award-winning children’s novel, Island of the Blue Dolphins, a story by Scott O’Dell about a young Indian girl who lived alone on an island for 18 years.

Now, there may be new chapters to be written with the recent finding of a shelter recognized apparently as the home of this fabled “Lone Woman” of San Nicolas Island (SNI).

A team of Cal State L.A. archaeology students—led by CSULA’s Anthropology Professor René Vellanoweth—assisted U.S. Navy archaeologist Steve Schwartz in uncovering this “Lost Indian Cave.”

Based on historical accounts, between 1835 and 1853, the Lone Woman lived alone on the island after her people, of the Nicoleño Indian tribe, were removed to the mainland. Upon her death, she was taken to the Santa Barbara Mission and baptized Juana Maria.

The crew, as mentioned in a recent Los Angeles Times article, dedicated nearly a dozen weekends excavating the buried cave, which required hauling away more than 40,000 buckets or a million pounds of moist sand. Their hard labor began to pay off when the team found two sets of initials inscribed in the cave wall with a clearly etched date of “September 11, 1911.”

“These etchings confirmed that the cave was partially exposed and accessible at this time,” said CSULA graduate student William E. Kendig. “Because of the location of the etchings on the cave wall, it is likely that older components were already buried at the time of the inscription.”

Lost Indian Cave discovered in San Nicolas Island.

Pictured: Lost Indian Cave discovered in San Nicolas Island.

In addition to Vellanoweth and Kendig, members of the CSULA team include alumni Amira F. Ainis and Jane E. Mitchell, as well as student volunteers Jennie A. Allen, Rachel Chaus, Jessica F. Colston, Ryan Glenn, Brendon J. Greenaway, Richard B. Guttenberg, Rebekka Knierim, Queeny G. Lapeña, Johanna Marty, Reilly Murphy, Joseph Ortiz, Sean M. Rafferty, Chelsea Smith, Kevin Smith, and Emily L. Whistler.

After removing more sediment, the team found additional evidence that the cave had been used even earlier, including two glass pepper sauce bottles (circa 1840 and 1865) and remnants of a late 19th-century Chinese abalone fishing camp.

“Based on the stratigraphy or layering of the sediment over time, if the Lone Woman used the cave, artifacts she left behind should be just below our current surface,” said Colston.

This stirred excitement among the group as they realized they could be on the verge of finding new archaeological evidence of the Lone Woman’s solitary life on SNI.

Guttenberg indicated, “It’s not often that we have the opportunity to link historical figures and events with the archaeological record, and that’s what makes this project so exciting.”

The team is hopeful that below the layer of sediment representing the Lone Woman’s occupation, an even more distant record of the island’s human and environmental past is uncovered.

“Although the possibility that this cave was used by the Lone Woman is fantastic,” Allen said, “the idea that it was used for thousands of years prior to that is even more exciting to us.”

In a related discovery, the crew of archaeology students also participated in the removal and documentation of a redwood box cache eroding out of a SNI steep cliff, which was found by Professor Jon Erlandson, executive director of the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon.

It has been reported that the cache contained numerous stone, metal, glass, and bone tools and ornaments as well as three tar-coated basketry water bottles. Many of the artifacts have stylistic attributes of both local and Native Alaskan origin.

According to Vellanoweth, “The items were likely cached by someone, perhaps even the Lone Woman, living during the early to mid-1800s, when Russian fur traders commissioned Koniag and Aleut hunters to ply the rich waters around SNI for sea otter and other marine mammal pelts.”

Vellanoweth and his students, along with Schwartz and U.S. Navy archaeologist/CSULA alumna Lisa Thomas-Barnett, recently presented the results of this research at the 8th California Islands Symposium in Ventura, CA, where discovery of the cave was first presented to the public.

Vellanoweth noted that the amount of interest in the presentations on the cave and cache prompted the National Park Service to provide live webcasts, which will be archived on the agency’s website ( for later viewing.

Furthermore, the students will present their continuing research on the “Lost Indian Cave” and the redwood box cache at the annual meetings of the Society for California Archaeology, held between March 7 and 10, in Berkeley, CA.

“(It) has been an incredible opportunity to share these two highly-significant archaeological discoveries with the scientific community and the public,” said Lapeña. “I am honored to have had the opportunity to participate in this research.”

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