Nearly 200 sets of human remains found at O.C. construction site

The number is far higher than the state Indian heritage panel knew and fuels the argument of activists who opposed the building of homes near the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach.

By Tony.Barboza, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer, FEBRUARY 28, 2008

Archaeologists have removed 174 sets of human remains from a controversial housing development under construction in Huntington Beach, bolstering claims that it was a significant prehistoric Native American settlement.

Dave Singleton, program analyst for the California Native American Heritage Commission, said 87 sets of remains were removed before Hearthside Homes broke ground on its Brightwater development near the Bolsa Chica wetlands in June 2006 and 87 more since then.

Officials at the commission, which did not learn of the finds until December, said they should have been told as each set of remains was discovered.

Mostly bone fragments, the remains are being kept in trailers in Temecula, and the first 87 have been reinterred, Singleton said.

The finds also support the belief of community activists who sought to derail the housing project because of its closeness to the wetlands and because they said the area was once part of an 8,500-year-old Native American settlement.

"Village sites and cemeteries of this age are extremely rare," said Patricia Martz, a professor of anthropology at Cal State L.A. who studies California prehistoric coastal cultures.

Flossie Horgan, executive director of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, a group opposing development at Bolsa Chica, said Hearthside has tried to cover up the finds by not disclosing them to the public.

Had activists known the extent of the remains earlier, she said, they might have been able to persuade the California Coastal Commission to reject the development.

"They are obliterating our past by destroying a site of international significance and letting houses go up," she said.

Hearthside did not return four calls for comment Wednesday. After a 30-year battle over the development in and around the salt marsh, Hearthside won Coastal Commission approval in 2005 to build 350 homes on 68 acres on Bolsa Chica mesa.

A business manager at Scientific Resource Surveys, the archaeological firm excavating at the site, would not comment on the remains.

"The number of burials seems awfully high," said Teresa Henry of the Coastal Commission, who questioned the amount because there have been "slow and meticulous" excavations at the site going back to the early 1980s.

"The significance and the potential for there to be human remains was certainly known when the project was approved, but [the developer] is not required to give us a report until they finish unearthing the remains and reburial," she said.

A handful of prehistoric human remains were found at Bolsa Chica mesa starting in the early '90s, according to the Orange County coroner's office, but the total was not made public until this week.

The site is claimed by two Native American groups: the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians and the Gabrieleno-Tongva tribe. The Native American Heritage Commission has designated representatives from both groups as most likely descendants. Once informed of remains, they are paid to monitor excavations and to decide how they should be disposed of.

Joyce Perry, cultural resource director of one Juaneño group, said that she has monitored the Bolsa Chica site since the early '90s, and that although she was aware of the number of human remains found for several years, it is the tribe's policy not to make the location of burial sites public out of fear they will be looted.

"The fact that they have been unearthed is extremely unfortunate," she said. "However, Hearthside Homes has conformed to all our requests, and they will be laid to rest with peace and dignity."

Also found at the site were at least 400 cogged stones, artifacts that resemble gears and are believed to have been ceremonial objects. The stones are similar to those found in coastal prehistoric sites in Chile, Singleton said. More than 5,000 other artifacts, including scraping tools and mortars and pestles, have been removed from the site, filling 2,000 boxes, he said.

"This is an important archaeological site and one of the state's densest concentrations of Native American remains," Singleton said.

Word of the new finds came in the form of a letter sent from Scientific Resource Surveys archaeologist Nancy Wiley to the developer in November.

But the news came as a surprise to Singleton, who had requested an update because he was concerned that the archaeological work had stopped. The archaeologist, he said, should have notified the coroner when each set of remains was found, and the coroner should have notified him.

Supervising Deputy Coroner Cullen Ellingburgh said his agency was aware that human remains were being excavated, but did not expect to be told of each set because it was an ongoing project.

Martz, the anthropology professor, said that the purpose of excavating Native American sites before building on them is to share the findings with the public and the fact that the number of remains was not disclosed to the state suggests unnecessary secrecy by the developer.

"To have it just disregarded and treated like something that has to be dug up and hidden away is just sad," she said. "If it was a Mayan ruin, they never would have been allowed to have done that."




Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.