Remains of a Native American man who died 10,000 years ago have been returned to a burial site on San Miguel Island by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.
The remains were inadvertently discovered near an old Chumash campsite in 2005 by archaeologists from the University of Oregon who were surveying an archaeological site on the island, which is called Tuqan in the Chumash language.
Tuqan Man, as the ancient bones subsequently came to be known, had been buried in a grave marked with stones, according to Archaeology magazine.
But his remains were found exposed and eroding into a gully, said a spokeswoman for the Chumash tribe.
Part of Channel Islands National Park, San Miguel Island is the westernmost of the eight Channel Islands located off the Santa Barbara County coast and was settled about 13,000 years ago by ancestors of the Chumash people who created a maritime culture there.
Like their neighbors, the island’s inhabitants built strong canoes called tomols they used to fish the local waters — with spears, nets, and poles rigged with lines and hooks — and to travel to the other islands and mainland to hunt and trade with other villages.
Following the discovery of Tuqan Man’s remains, the National Park Service consulted the Chumash, who have strong ties to the Channel Islands, and together they decided to excavate the unprotected bones to prevent them from falling from the eroding cliff and being lost in the sea.
A full scientific study was conducted on the remains due to their potential cultural and scientific significance.
The Chumash ancestors weren’t the only humans known to visit and inhabit the island.
Portuguese explorer João Rodrigues Cabrillo investigated the area in 1542 and died on the island, and some believe he was buried there.
From the mid-19th to mid-20th century, the island was occupied by sheep ranchers, and some of them are likely buried there.
So, although archaeologists who found the remains said they were pretty certain the bones were Native American because of their location and surrounding artifacts, it was important to scientifically determine Tuqan Man’s heritage.
The federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act also required the National Park Service to determine if the remains were Native American and, if so, whether they could be transferred to a Native American tribe.
The Chumash tribe supported the scientific process as necessary to determine his Tuqan Man’s heritage and worked with the National Park Service to ensure the remains were treated respectfully throughout the process, the spokeswoman said.
Who was he?
Scientists determined the man was Native American, had died between 9,800 and 10,200 years ago, based on radiocarbon dating, and was 40 to 50 years old when he died — a ripe old age for that era.
His bones showed no signs of recent trauma, but there was evidence of a broken arm that had healed.
Unable to extract DNA from the remains after five attempts over 12 years, scientists couldn’t definitively connect Tuqan Man to the Chumash people.
In addition, an analysis of isotopes in the bones showed he lived somewhere in the interior of California, not on the islands.
The shape of the skull did not match the shape of modern Chumash, according to an anthropology professor who was involved in the excavation, but he noted that’s also not unusual even when a genetic link is clearly found.
Such was the case with Kennewick Man, a Paleoamerican whose remains were found in 1996 on the bank of a river near Kennewick, Washington, and are roughly the same age as Tuqan Man’s.
His skull shape didn’t match those of modern tribes living in the area, so some argued he couldn’t be Native American, sparking protracted academic and legal battles over disposition of his remains, according to Smithsonian.com.
But eventually, he was genetically linked more closely to Native Americans than any other modern humans, and his remains were finally delivered to Washington tribes for a traditional reburial.
Despite the lack of DNA evidence, the Chumash “firmly believe that Tuqan Man is their ancestor,” the tribe spokeswoman said.
As a result, the Santa Ynez Chumash sought custody of his remains.
“Protecting the final resting places of our ancestors is of paramount importance to the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians,” said Kenneth Kahn, tribal chairman.
“When our tribe learned of the discovery made by archaeologists on San Miguel Island, we made it a priority to ensure that our ancestor was laid to rest with a proper burial,” he continued. “Thanks to years of cooperation with the National Park Service, we were granted that opportunity.”
After an analysis of the remains, the National Park Service determined Tuqan Man is Native American.
Without genetic proof, the National Park Service had to publish legal notices about the remains, but no other tribes came forward to claim them.
As a result, the Chumash tribe was granted custody, and Tuqan Man was returned to a site near his original resting place on San Miguel Island.