Scientists Race Tides to Document Historic Sites

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), April 5, 2009 | Go to article overview

Scientists Race Tides to Document Historic Sites


Byline: Alicia Chang AP science writer

SAN MIGUEL ISLAND, Calif. u Perched on the edge of this wind-swept Southern California island, archaeologist Jon Erlandson watches helplessly as 6,600 years of human culture u and a good chunk of his career u is swallowed by the Pacific surf.

It was not long ago that this tip of land on the northwest coast cradling an ancient Chumash Indian village stretched out to sea. But years of storm surge and roiling waves have taken a toll. The tipping point came last year when a huge piece broke off, drowning remnants of discarded abalone, mussel and other shellfish that held clues to an ancient human diet.

"ThereAEs an enormous amount of history thatAEs washing into the sea every year," Erlandson said matter-of-factly during a recent hike. "We literally canAEt keep up."

The sea has long lashed at the Channel Islands, also known as the North American Galapagos u stripping away beaches, slicing off cliff faces and nibbling at hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cultural relics.

Past coastal erosion for the most part was a natural phenomenon, but the problem is feared to grow worse with human-caused global warming and higher sea levels.

In a race against time and a rising tide, Erlandson and other keepers of history are hurrying to record and save eroding artifacts, which hold one of the earliest evidence for human seafaring in the Americas.

"WeAEre just hoping thereAEs something left," he said.

Around the globe, climate change is erasing the archaeological record, already under assault from development, grave robbers and illegal trade. Most at risk are prehistoric burials entombed in ice and ancient settlements hugging ever-shrinking coastlines.

A warming planet is speeding the melting of polar ice, threatening to expose frozen remains like Scythian warrior mummies in Mongolia. Thawing permafrost is causing the ground to slump on CanadaAEs Herschel Island, damaging caskets dating to the whaling heyday. Accelerated glacial melting may flood pre-Incan temples and tombs in the northern Andean highlands of Peru.

Meanwhile, sea level rise fueled by global warming is expected to hasten the disappearance of historic coastal villages. Vulnerable places include AlaskaAEs early Eskimo hamlets, EgyptAEs monuments of Alexandria and about 12,000 seaside sites in Scotland including the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae.

"There are whole civilizations that we risk losing completely," said C. Brian Rose, president of the Archaeological Institute of America. "History is disintegrating before our very eyes. …

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