April 26, 2014 / 1:55 AM / 5 years ago

Native burial site in California paved over for development

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A significant Native American archeological site in the San Francisco Bay Area has been paved over to make way for a housing complex, roiling the relationship among scientists, developers and Native Americans over disposition of human remains and artifacts.

The discovery of the 4,500-year-old Coastal Miwok trove in Marin County has been hailed as historically valuable by archaeologists who were disappointed that tribal leaders chose to rebury what was unearthed, and that construction at the site continued.

The site contained hundreds of human burials, bear and other animal bones, stone tools, weapons, musical instruments, idols and beads, and a ritual condor.

“There are very few sites like this left in the Bay area,” said Jelmer Eerkens, a professor at the University of California at Davis who specializes in archeology. “Since the land was deemed more valuable as homes and the site was going to be destroyed, this was a fantastic opportunity to learn about how people lived 4,500 years ago.”

The artifacts were turned over to the tribe last June, and grading and construction continued shortly after that. The decision became public late last month when it was revealed at an archaeological symposium.

Archeologist Al Schwitalla, who examined many of the artifacts, called the find “one of the richest, oldest sites in the region” and lamented the site could not be studied further.

Once the artifacts were discovered, developer Larkspur Land 8 Owner LLC was required by the California Environmental Quality Act to call in scientists to study the site under monitoring by Native Americans.

A group of archeologists had two months to examine excavated artifacts before they were turned over to the tribe and construction continued on the $55 million Rose Lane development to make way for 85 senior and affordable units, and single-family multimillion-dollar homes.

The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, whose traditional lands include the area, decided to rebury the disturbed remains in an undisclosed location, said Greg Sarris, chairman of the 1,300-member tribe.

“It’s our decision,” he said. “What people don’t understand is that our lives, our history, is not in the public domain except on our terms. These remains are our responsibility to take care of.”

He said the tribe would have preferred to keep the site intact but that it had no authority to stop the development. A representative for the developer said it complied with the tribe’s wishes before construction continued.

Sensitivity to the dead was an important factor in how the site was handled, said Eerkens, but he wishes scientists had been granted greater access to artifacts such as stone tools and garbage.

“These are the kinds of things archaeologists use to reconstruct the past,” he said.

Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker

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