© 2003 Steve Turnbull
It was a hot, sunny day in Laguna Beach California in 1933, when 17 year old Howard Wilson showed up at his pal Ed Marriner’s house to talk to him about something that he had been thinking about lately. Howard had plans for a great adventure that day.
Howard and Ed often spent time together, roaming over the empty Laguna landscape searching for local Indian artifacts. They both had been well schooled in the lay of this rugged land, the coastal bluffs, it’s rivers, hills and canyons. They both had spent most of their youth scrambling amongst the hidden treasures of this unique coastal environment, and they loved it deeply. They shared a common interest in the history of the area, and especially the living history of the inhabitants that were living here before the Spanish “discovered” them in the late 1500′s.
They also knew exactly where to look amongst the cliff tops and fields of coastal Laguna for places the Indians lived and worked. Indian village sites were scattered everywhere along the coast and easy to find – if you knew where to look. The patches of rich black soil filled with small bits of chipped and burned rock, mixed in with seashells by the thousands, that told them this was the living floor or “midden” of a vanished people who once populated the coast.
The makers of these middens, were a semi-nomadic group of desert culture people that had come into the Southern California area around 3,000 years ago, displacing the older “Oak Grove” people, who were here before them by nearly another 3,000 years earlier. Little is known of these earlier “Oak Grove” people from that ancient time, but a great deal is known of the more recent folk.
Coming from the harsh deserts of the Southwest, they had brought with them the tools and traditions of a nomadic people who had learned to fashion their lives around the constant need to migrate in the never ending hunt for food. When they arrived at the coast they continued their ancient habits after a fashion, but only between the oak tree filled mountains with their plentiful acorn supply, and the coast with it’s unlimited supply of fish, clams, abalone and small game. Life was so good and so easy compared to the desert, that they kept their tools and culture little different from what they already knew. Apparently they felt little need to improve their circumstances – it was near perfect as it was.
When the Spanish missions were established, these unfortunate and gentle people were rounded up and named after the missions to which they were sent. The Laguna people were split in two groups. Those north of Aliso Canyon were sent to Mission San Gabriel and called the “Gabrielinos”, while those to the south of Aliso were sent to San Juan Capistrano Mission and became the “Juanenos”.
Howard had already amassed a sizable collection of stone tools, arrowpoints, carved shells, and cooking utensils left behind by these now vanished peoples, but that was not their goal today. He had bigger, more exciting plans for today’s adventure. Today they were going to look for something new. Something entirely different.
They went looking for a rumor…
The rumor was that a few years earlier some workmen were digging the foundation for a new house on St. Anns Drive when they found some skeletal remains…a few old skulls…that looked like humans. The workers supposedly crushed them up and tossed them into the cement mix for the slab and continued working. Howard figured that if it were true, there might be other remains still to be found in the area, and it would be a perfect way to spend a sunny summer day with his adventure buddy Ed.
The boys set off with the the typical high hopes of youth, thinking that finding a an old bone would be quite a thrill, little knowing that even their wildest dreams of discovery would not match what they were about to do…
They were about to meet the first American!
Howard knew that anything buried in Laguna’s soft, sandy soil would be quite easy to dig up. So easy in fact, that he only brought along a screwdriver to use as a digging tool. It was what he had always done before, and he couldn’t imagine why he would need anything else.
The boys left the house and headed down off the sloping hillside to the Pacific Coast Hwy., then walked south until they arrived at St. Anns Drive, a short street that ran back up the hillside, perpendicular to the recently paved Highway. The first block of the street had been graded down a long time ago, about five feet lower then the surrounding ground level to meet the PCH at a more favorable angle. This exposed a 100 foot long bank of sand colored soil on top of a layer of solid rock. They began to inspect this exposed earth as a good place to start.
Howard walked along to the west, carefully inspecting every tiny rock and bump along the face of the bank, when he suddenly saw something unusual down near the very base of the cut. Bending down for a closer look, he realized that he was looking at the end of a long bone sticking out of the hard rock. Howard yelled to Ed to come see, pulled out his screwdriver, and began to chip away at the rock. Immediately Howard realized that there was something very odd about this whole thing, and made a mental note to himself about it, because the bone was encased in solid rock – not the soft soil one would expect for a burial. He chipped away for many minutes until at last the bone fell free.
The boys looked closely at the bone and knew that they had found something that might be human, but they weren’t really sure. Howard knelt back down and began to chip again at the hard rock to see if there might be more bone now exposed. Sure enough, he spotted what looked like another smoother and more rounded piece of bone further into the rock, and began again to chip and dig away at the hard rock surrounding it. He chipped at it for many minutes, working up a good sweat, but he had made very little progress. Tiring rapidly from the effort, Howard handed the screwdriver to Ed who began to try his luck at the task. Ten minutes later, Ed had made very little headway, and a lot of sweat too. It was in very solid rock. This was going to take forever, they both agreed.
Realizing that the screwdriver was completely inadequate for the job, Howard decided that he would run back to his house to get a pick axe. Ed stayed and continued to work with screwdriver, and within an hour, Howard came excitedly running back with this new more powerful tool. Resting just a minute or two, Howard then began to whack much more forcefully at the rock with the pick. This time, he began making better progress. The rock was shattering away from around the bone quickly now.
In his enthusiasm, and with a tired arm, Howard struck hard at the rock, but the pick glanced off the rock and struck the bone with a loud “thwack”!
They both held their breath and peered closely at the damage. There was a small nick in the smooth surface, but the bone appeared to be solid and unbroken. With a much more careful and gentle swing from then on, the boys finally succeeded in removing the large bone from it’s rock tomb.
Holding it up to the light at last, Howard now knew for certain that what he had found was a human skull.
But what he wouldn’t know for almost another 40 years was that he held something far more important.
He was holding the first American in history!
When the sun began to sink low to the horizon and shadows became long, an exhausted but exhilarated Howard returned home with his prize. It still had pieces rock and dirt clinging to it, and could use a good scubbing, so he went out to the backyard washing sink to clean it off under the faucet. As the dirt washed away, and he had time to think about it, he began to question just exactly what it was that seemed odd to him. He had seen other skulls of the local Indians before in books from the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles. But something looked a bit different with this skull.
It seemed to have a much more gentle slope from the eye sockets up and over the top of the skull, not the usual abrupt rise he’d seen on the other skulls in the books. Was this important he began to wonder?
And the fact that it was encased in very solid rock began to puzzle him too. How long would it take for soft sandy soil to turn into hard solid rock, he wondered? Surely the local Indians couldn’t, and wouldn’t, bury this individual in solid rock. He knew how hard it that rock was was, and knew that he’d never heard of nor seen any type of Indian tool that could dig through that kind of material. And the fact that the first bone he’d found – which he now recognize as part of a leg bone -was found at a random angle above and behind the top of the skull. It just didn’t fit in with the idea of a normal burial.
Maybe the bones washed out of the hills above a long time ago, he thought. Or maybe this individual – Howard had begun to think of the skull as a man – had been crushed under some sort of rock avalanche, or trapped in a fast flowing stream and buried under the mud, which after maybe a thousand years would turn to rock, or…. well, he just didn’t know.
His mother, Grace, came out to see what Howard was doing and to tell him to get washed up for supper, when she saw the skull in his hands. Howard proudly and excitedly began showing it off to her. Grace Wilson was a sweet and nurturing soul who loved that her son was so interested in the local Indians, but the thought of a dead man’s skull in her house gave her pause.
“You’re not going to bring that old thing in the house…are you?” she asked.
“Yes! Of course!” said Howard happily.
“I think you should throw it in the trash” Grace replied hopefully, “I don’t know if I want it in the house.”
“Oh, but I’ll keep it in a box so won’t ever have to see it.” Howard replied smilingly.
Grace could now see that it was very important to Howard, and like it or not, she also knew that there was going to be a human skull in her house.
“Ok then, wash up now and come in for supper”, Grace smiled in resignation.
I’ll toss it in the trash when he’s forgotten about it, thought Grace to herself. He’ll never miss it.
He wanted to know how old it was.
That was the question that began to burn in Howard’s imagination. He studied the shape of the gently sloping brow every night in his room. He poured over every textbook on early man in America that he could find, trying to match it up to something similar, but he couldn’t find any pictures or drawings of skulls that matched up very well. They all seemed to have a strong vertical rise from the eyebrow ridge to the top of the skull, yet what he was holding looked somehow more graceful and delicate. Was it just the way this individual was shaped? Or was it a genetic trait of an entire population, and this was just the normal shape of one of it’s members?
To answer that question, he needed to know how old it was to see if it was a member of the recently arrived Jaunaneos, or maybe one of the far more ancient “Oak Grove” people. He suspected the latter, as the skull was found in rock, and rock takes a great amount of time to form. But then again, how long was that he wondered? In 1933, dating archeological material was a pure estimate based on a number of clues – Where it was found, what tools were found with it, how deep it was found, local sedimentation rates…a long list of “guesstimates” that would point to a general age, but nothing definite.
He decided to ask an expert.
In 1935, he wrote a letter, and included a detailed drawing, to the respected Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, the local authority on the Indians of California. He received an answer from Dr. Frances E. Watkins, the Assistant Curator, who wrote that while it was most likely a prehistoric skull, he felt that it was not an especially primitive type.
Click on image to read the original reply from the Southwest Museum in 1935
Dr. Watkins took the time in his letter to further elaborate on some of the scientific and historical knowledge of the coastal Indians at that time, meager as it was, and this fires Howard’s enthusiasm by validating his own theory. Here it was…an actual scientist confirming his suspicions of the skull possibly being older then the recent Jaunaneos, and maybe even of the ancient “Oak Grove” people! Although it was not a positive endorsement of a great age, he now knew the skull might be something important, maybe very important. It fueled his desire to answer the one big question that he had started with:
How old was the skull?
It began a lifelong quest, and Howard never wavered in his focus. There would eventually come an answer. A positive, definite, scientific answer…but it would be an answer that nobody expected!
In 1937, Howard loaned the skull to Mr. David Phoenix, a local Laguna Beach Geologist, to take with him to Santa Barbara. Mr. Phoenix was attending a geological seminar there, and he agreed to set aside some time to take it over to the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum for analysis.
Dr. David Banks Rogers, the Director of the Museum, inspected the skull and immediately became excited with what he was holding. He recognized it as exactly what the museum had been looking for for many years! He felt it was the “missing link” in a long chain of evidence of prehistoric man on the California coast that the Museum had been carefully gathering. He said it was definitely a specimen of the “Oak Grove People”, a type of man that inhabited the California coast long before the present day Indians that were here when the Spanish came along.
Dr. Banks noted that the shape of the skull, being so small in measurement, with it’s barely perceptible rise from the eye sockets upward, and the unusual flatness at the top of the skull so different from that of modern coastal Indians, confirmed Archeologists theory’s that these people were short, blocky, and small in stature.
Los Angeles Times – 1937
Click on image to see full-size
The Archeologists had already surmised this from many subtle clues gleaned from archeological excavations. He said that from what they had found, they were poor hunters of big game, and ate great quantities of seafood and acorns…hence the name “Oak Grove”. Although the scientists had found remnants of primitive baskets, and rather crudely made arrow points, they appeared to not have any knowledge of the art of pottery making.
Now the news of the find hit the newspapers. It became the topic of much conversation within the town of Laguna, and great interest and debate by the archeological community in California. Everyone wanted to get a look at the skull, and Howard was invited to many a meeting in the area to bring the skull for the locals to “ooh and aah” over, and for scientists to puzzle over and ponder.
Of course, Grace Wilson still had her doubts about having an old skull in her house, and all the fuss didn’t ease her concerns one bit. She had occasionally tossed the skull in the trash after Howard first brought it home.
When he would discover it missing, Howard knew what had happened and he would quickly fish it out of the trash can again, and replace it on the shelf in his closet without saying anything about it. He knew it was a sensitive subject with Grace, and he didn’t want to make matters any worse.
But now – after this public fuss and all – Grace knew she couldn’t toss it out again. She finally had come to an understanding with the situation. She may not like the skull being in her house, but since the scientists thought it was important, it could now stay for good. Howard knew it too, and he felt relieved that his prize would not end up in the garbage dump again if he went away for a while!
In 1937, Howard received a letter from Dr. A.O. Bowden, head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of California requesting to see the skull. Howard packed it well, and sent it off to the University, excited to know that the most respected scientists in Californian Indian studies would be weighing in with their opinion.
A few months later, the skull was sent back, along with a letter from an instructor, Ivan A. Lopatin. The letter read in part as follows:
“After close visual examination and comparison with other skulls in our laboratory, I am able to say only that the skull under consideration does not differ from that of an average California Indian. The Skull was exposed for years to the influence of the atmosphere”.
Of course, the fact that the skull was found five feet underground encased in solid rock didn’t seem to influence this studied opinion at all.
Reply from USC in 1937
Click on image to see full-size
But how could the skull have been exposed to the atmosphere for years?, thought Howard. It seemed impossible to him. He remembered thinking at the time that maybe the skull had been exposed to the atmosphere for years before it became buried so deep in the ground, but that would make it even greater in age then he or anyone else thought possible, so he dismissed the thought himself.
The letter was very discouraging to Howard. Lacking any positive scientific method with the technology of that time to positively date the skull left him with little choice but to accept the opinion of those of greater knowledge. If they said it was nothing special, then he must accept that opinion. But, it was difficult to accept when the opinion didn’t seem to fit with the facts.
Howard put the skull back in it’s little box and back on the shelf in his closet, and there it stayed. Howard soon went off to war in the Pacific, returned home to begin raising a family and grow his Building Design profession.
It would be almost another 20 years till the skull came back out into the light of scientific inquiry.
A chance meeting of Artist George Stromer and Howard Wilson.
Sculptor George Stromer with Dr. J.J. Marky holding the Laguna Skull.
In 1953, Howard was reading the local newspaper, The Laguna Beach South Coast News, and in it was an article that set him to thinking.
The article concerned a local sculptor, Mr. George Stromer, who had been sculpting the heads of prehistoric men, using the archaeologic skulls as the basis for his approach.
Using an exact copy of these skulls as the foundation for his work, Mr. Stromer would add what he thought was the clay equivalent of muscle and skin over top of it, resulting in a hopefully realistic portrayal of the the original owner of the skull. He was trying to bring ancient man to life. Howard contacted Stromer, and offered the Laguna skull to him to model, and Stromer readily agreed.
The model he produced showed more about the artistic thinking of Mr. Stromer then it did of the reality of the Laguna skull. While the size of the brain case was approximately correct, the other features were the product of a fertile artistic imagination. He produced the likeness of a small-brained man with strong projecting eyebrow ridges and an unusually large and forward thrusting jaw. This incorrect model resulted from both preconceived notions of what a primitive man “should” look like, coupled with the fact that there was nothing to the actual skull below the midpoint of the eyesockets with which to base his model upon.
But this chance meeting of Howard and Mr. Stromer did more then produce a fancy sculpture. It set in motion a chain of events which eventually took the skull to Museum of Man in Paris, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, through the hands of the famous Dr. Louis Leakey, and finally to the high-tech Carbon 14 Dating facilities of the UCLA Geophysics lab.
The age of the skull was going to be answered – but not for another 15 years!
The Laguna Woman gets her first date and flies to Paris!
The artist George Stromer had worked previously with an anthropologist from Oceanside California, Dr, J.J. Markey, who was directing the Indian projects centered around San Louis Rey mission area. Mr. Stromer thought that Dr. Markey might be interested in seeing the skull and asked Howard if he could take it to him to see what he thought, as Dr. Markey’s area of specialization was Southern California coastal Indians. Howard of course said yes, as he was still curious of anything he might learn about the skull he had found as a boy, 20 years ago.
Dr. Markey’s first impression on seeing the skull was how much it reminded him of ancient aboriginal skulls from Australia he had studied, and asked Howard’s permission to study the skull further. Using a new and somewhat imprecise technology then called a “Wall Screen Counter” – the forerunner of today’s precise Carbon 14 dating method – Dr. Markey was shocked when the results indicated a possible date of more then 25,000 years old! This was exciting news! The earliest known specimen of man up till then was only 9,000 years old, yet here was a individual that was possibly 2 1/2 times older then that!
Great excitement erupted in American archeological circles, and Dr. Markey quickly made plans to take the skull to the “Musee de l’Homme”, The Museum of Man, in Paris France. The greatest collection of prehistoric archeological skulls in the world, over 20,000, were housed there for study, and Dr. Markey wanted to have the Laguna Skull compared with them.
Immediately, the scientists in Paris noticed that tiny mollusk shell fossils and other fossils of small plants still stuck to the skull were of a type that had become extinct over 100,000 years ago, thus raising hopes that the skull might be of the same age.
They also agreed that the skull looked astonishingly like the same cranial segments of certain primitive tribes of Bushmen, who still live in Australia.
Markey stated that “The similarities are sufficiently striking to justify the conclusion that the present day native Australians and the Southern California a common forefather” and that he must have crossed the land bridge between Asia and North America from 25,000 to possibly 400,000 years ago. But still, there was no way yet to say with absolute proof just how old the skull was, and that was where the subject lay. Until science invented a positive dating system, everything was just a guess.
The skull then traveled throughout Europe, to museums in Madrid, Belgium, Holland, and eventually the British Museum in London. After eight long years of scientific study, the skull finally came home to Laguna in 1961 and back in it’s old box on the shelf in Howard Wilson’s closet. There it stayed for many years… Till once again, in 1967, incredible fortune came along and changed history forever. Dr. Louis Leakey, the world famous Archeologist was about to meet the Laguna Woman!
Dr. Louis Leakey gets a gander at the skull, and immediately sends it to UCLA for a precise date…
Frank Tubb was a building contractor in Santa Ana with an interest in the archeology of Orange County. He had already discovered a 17 million year old fossil Whale in Mission Viejo during the construction of one of his housing projects. He was intrigued by the Laguna Skull, and had contacted Howard to see the skull for himself.
Through an odd coincidence, he was also an old friend of Dr. L.S.B. Leakey, who, as it happened, was also in Newport Beach on a lecture tour that week. Dr. Leakey was considered the dean of contemporary Anthropologists, having discovered man’s earliest ancestor, 2 million year old Homo Habilis, at Olduvai Gorge, Tanganyika in 1960.
Tubb called his old friend Dr. Leakey and asked him if he’d like to see the skull too. Leakey, often inundated by locals bringing old things for him to see during his tour, usually would turn down such a request, but he decided to look at the skull for the sake of his old friend.
Howard took the skull to Balboa where Leakey was staying with friends and was told by an assistant there that the DR’s schedule was so busy and that he could only spare 10 minutes. Howard entered the room and produced the skull.
“He took one look at the skull and began grinning ‘Oh! Gee, that looks great!‘ he said. I thought I’d never get out of there.” said Howard later.
Leakey apparently instantly recognized the possible significance of the skull, and became so interested in finding out it’s true age, that he asked Howard if he might take the skull to the Geophysics lab at the University of California in Los Angeles to have it dated using the now very precise method of Carbon-14 dating.
In fact, it would be dated by the very scientists who invented the C-14 method of dating, Dr. Willard Libby and Dr. Reiner Burger. If anyone in the world could find the most precise date possible, using the most accurate lab procedures, it would be these two men. Howard agreed to the dating and handed the skull over to Dr. Leakey, then went home to wait.
Ironically, just during the preceding year, Howard had offered the skull to two prominent California Universities for examination: Both had turned it down.
They would soon find out they had missed out on the most exciting discovery in American Archeology.
The Laguna Skull is the oldest in the Western Hemisphere!
The news rocks the American Anthropological community!
Dr. Willard Libby, Dean of the UCLA Geophysics Lab was awarded The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1960. “for his method to use carbon-14 for age determination in archaeology, geology, geophysics, and other branches of science”.
The Laguna skull was brought to him by Dr. Louis Leakey and Dr. Rainer Burger, the head of Anthropology Department at UCLA. Together the three scientists applied the most rigorous testing possible to the Laguna Skull to determine once and for all it’s actual age.
Anything that lives on earth breaths. You do, I do, a bacteria does. The air contains many elements that become part of a living organism as it breaths. including a large amount of the stable element Carbon 12 (C-12), with a small percentage of the unstable isotope Carbon 14 (C-14). All during our lives we take in the same proportion of C-12 to C-14, but when you die, no more C-14 is taken in, and it begins to slowly decay over time into the stable isotope C-12. It takes about 60,000 years for all of the C-14 to decay into C-12. By measuring the amount of C-14 left in the bones or in other organic materials, scientists can calculate how long the organism has been dead. Carbon-14 dating has become the most sensitive and reliable method for dating recent archaeological finds, and today it is the standard tool used by research labs worldwide.
Working carefully and deliberately, the three scientists ran their sensitive tests for many days at the UCLA Geophysics Lab. About 20 percent of the skull would have to be crushed up and burned for a testing sample, so the area at the back of the skull was chosen to leave as much of the skull intact as possible for future study. The entire small leg bone fragment found along with skull was destroyed for testing also, but the results were worth the loss.
The results finally confirmed what many had suspected. The skull was old… very old.
At 17,000 years old, they were the oldest human remains ever found in the entire Western Hemisphere. Nearly twice as old as anything previously known. The Laguna Skull is the FIRST American!
At the same time, a number of sensitive and precise measurements of the skull’s various morphological features made by Dr. Berger also changed how the world thought of the skull. Using very precise measurements, the sex of the skull could be positively stated.
Dr. Berger also now announced to the world that the skull was not “Laguna Man” as everyone had thought, but “Laguna Woman”!
At last, scientists had the truth, and it rocked the world of Anthropology. Entire careers had rested upon theories of when people had first entered the New World, and now most of those theories crumbled.
The generally accepted theory was that early man had entered the Americas by walking across a land bridge between Asia and the American continent that was exposed when the sea level fell when much of the water in the oceans were locked up in the great glaciers that covered the land during the last ice age. This land bridge was formed across what is now the Bering Straits. According to the best physical evidence at that time, the date of mans’ entrance into the Americas was around 9,000 to 10,000 years ago.
Elaborate and well reasoned theories supporting this belief fell with a resounding crash. Here before them was proof that the migration ( if it actually happened the way scientists imagined ) had occurred much earlier then any one thought possible. Twice as early!
But even more astounding, the Laguna Woman is probably far older then this official date.
The many years of human handling had added much “fresh” C14 to the skull. The “younger” seashells imbedded in the bone, along with recent organic material and minerals that had leeched into the skull all conspired to make the skull date younger then it actually was.
Dr. Louis Leakey was convinced that if the skull had not been so contaminated with fresh C14, that it’s actual age would have proved to be between 30 to 40,000 years old! Stunning!
This startling news set off intense archeological interest in looking for more bone fragments that might still be in the same area where the skull was found so many years ago on St. Anns Street.
Now the hunt was on again!
Now the hunt for more specimens of Laguna Woman is on!
The possibility of recovering more remains from the same location where Howard found Laguna Woman in 1933 excited many archeologists, and a full-scale scientific exploration of the site on St. Anns street was launched.
In the 35 years since the original discovery, more houses had been built along the street, but the long exposed bank of earth was still accessible, and the property owners were more then thrilled to allow the archeological team to dig up their front yards…provided they returned the land to it’s original form.
A team of professional archeologists were gathered together under the leadership of Dr. Joseph Tomchak, Professor of Archeology at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa California, to conduct a through excavation the discovery site. Students from UCLA and other surrounding universities joined in with great enthusiasm.
Throughout the summer months of 1968, the scientists carefully poured over every pebble and twig they dug up, searching for the tiniest clue. They found a few small pieces of “worked” stone, and many rodent bones and sea shells, but nothing more of any human remains. A geological assessment of the site showed that it was a 5-8 deep covering of earth that probably been washed down from the coastal mountains behind the town. This is probably where Laguna Woman came from too. She most likely died up high in a valley near the mountain top, called Hidden Valley, then later washed down to the present site during torrential rains.
This is a work-in-progress.
I’m writing it in fits and starts, so stop back by later to read the complete story. In the meantime, click on the newspaper articles below to read what was being said at the time. I’ll present them better soon. Thanks!