waters that spelled the demise of Santarosae as a single entity.
Bits and pieces of Santa Rosa Island’s early history, from artifacts to
seashells to human remains, reside in museums throughout the world.
From Prague to Berkeley, the Smithsonian to Harvard, numerous
institutions have benefited from research conducted by professional
and amateur scientists and collectors over the last 150 years. Among
the earliest to work on Santa Rosa Island was Lorenzo Gordin Yates
(1837-1909), a British born dentist and accomplished amateur scientist
who moved to Santa Barbara in 1881. One of the founders of the Santa
Barbara Society of Natural History (the forerunner of today’s Santa
Barbara Museum of Natural History), Yates visited the area several
times before settling here permanently, particularly to hunt for seashells
and fossils. Shells were one of his many passions, and in 1876, Yates
published “The Mollusca of Santa Rosa Island” in the
Quarterly Journal of
. But Yates could never have known that an elephant tusk he
found on one of his early expeditions to Santa Rosa Island was but a hint
of the fossil treasures that would be revealed in subsequent decades.
Another scientist integral to important discoveries on Santa Rosa
Island was Phil C. Orr, who in the mid-twentieth century served more
than three decades as Curator of Anthropology and Paleontology at the
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Orr worked extensively on
Santa Rosa Island, and over the years collected bones from nearly five
dozen individual mammoths, both large and small. But it was a later
group that experienced the most exciting mammoth discovery.
In August of 1994, a team of researchers from the National Park Service
working on Santa Rosa Island spotted a complete skeleton of a pygmy
mammoth, miraculously intact and lying in the position and location it had
died some 12,840 years before. Missing only a few toe bones and one tusk,
the pygmy mammoth was moved to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural
History, where it was named “Rosie” and installed as the justifiable star of
the Geology and Paleontology Hall. Santa Rosa Island provided the world’s
only example of a full size pygmy mammoth skeleton, and the first to be
accurately dated. But it wasn’t the island’s only headline-grabbing treasure.
In 1959, Phil Orr was working near Santa Rosa Island’s Arlington
Springs when he discovered human femurs, buried thirty feet deep in a
side wall of Arlington Canyon. Testing on charcoal from the stratum that
held the bones dated the remains to 10,000 years, making “Arlington
Springs Man” the oldest skeletal remains ever found in North America.
But because the bones were found in what turned out to be an eroded
stream channel, skepticism arose about the dates. Couldn’t younger bones
have washed into an older sediment area?
Fortunately, Orr had the foresight to preserve a block of Santa Rosa
Island earth that held the skeletal remains, carefully storing it at the Santa
Barbara Museum of Natural History to wait for technology to catch up
with his discovery. In 1989, Orr’s successor at the Museum, John Johnson,
started a re-evaluation project using advanced radio-carbon dating
methods. To everyone’s amazement, not only did “Arlington Springs
Man” turn out to be 13,000 years old, but “he” turned out to be a “she.”
The newly rechristened Arlington Springs Woman enjoyed her status
as the continent’s oldest leading lady until 2006, before undergoing yet
another sex change. Dr. Johnson reversed his earlier opinion after further
study, so Santa Rosa Island’s ancient time traveler again became known as
“Arlington Springs Man.”