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An Early Gabrieleño Indian Massacre?

Archeological Burial Site

An archeological burial site. Photo by USAF Tech. Sgt. Tracy L. DeMarco, courtesy U.S. Air Force.

In September of 1998, construction workers at the ARCO refinery in Carson uncovered a Native American burial site containing human remains believed to be dated at least 200 years ago. The remains were determined to be those of at least 27 Gabrieleño Indians, including 20 adults (15 males, 4 adult females, 5 of undermined sex) 1 adolescent, 1 child and 1 infant. The site contained two burial “episodes,” one dating about 1420-1620 C.E. (containing the remains of at least 7 people) and a more recent burial at about 1680-1810 C.E. (containing the remains of at least 20 people).

Archaeologist Frank McDowell, who excavated the site for six weeks under the oversight of Gabrieleño advisor Sam Dunlap, found the remains in the older burial episode to appear to have been buried more orderly and with some care. The remains in the more recent burial episode, however, appeared to have been buried hastily, as if thrown into graves. The evidence suggests that those buried more recently had died suddenly and violently. Their skeletal remains showed violent trauma to skulls, ribs, and limbs. The spine of another skeleton was snapped backwards to the point where the head was near the pelvis.

There was also evidence of attempts at cremation. None of the usual items traditionally placed at Gabrieleño gravesites, such as fishing implements and grain bowls, were found among the remains. A few artifacts such as basketry and beads were found in the area, as were glass beads from Venice, Italy, indicating some European contact. There were no indicators found, however, of Christian conversion, though the Spanish missions were already in the area during the period of the more recent burial episode. There was also no evidence found that Spaniards might have been responsible for any of the indicators of violence as would be evidenced by sword wounds to bones or musket balls found in the vicinity. What caused the violent deaths of some of these people remains a mystery.

Sources: Workers Unearth the Unexplained, Los Angeles Times, December 11, 1998, and Human Burials by Wayne H. Bonner, W. H. Bonner Associates.