UPDATE: News story: "Is Jurupa Valley oak tree – a 13,000-year-old Ice Age relic – threatened by new homes project?" The Press-Enterprise, May 25, 2019.
The Los Angeles Almanac has never before featured a subject outside the boundaries of Los Angeles County, however, because this concerns a local Native American tribal group and the subject is an extraordinary ancient living organism in our Southern California neighborhood, we thought to make this exception.
The Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians-Kizh Nation is seeking protection for an ancient oak tree in the Jurupa Hills of Riverside County that is endangered by housing development. Commonly called the Jurupa Oak, the Kizh call it the Hurungna Oak (so named for a Gabrieleño village that once was located nearby), the tree is considered not only sacred in California native culture, but also extraordinary due to its age. The tree has been scientifically determined to be at least 13,000 years old, making it not only the oldest known living organism in California and second oldest in North America, but, the third oldest living organism on earth.
The Jurupa Oak is a Palmer’s Oak (Querus Palmeri), a variety normally found in more mountainous, cooler and wetter locations than found in the northwest corner of Riverside County. The species is categorized as "Near Threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (considered threatened with extinction in the near future, although not currently qualifying for threatened status). After the existence of the Jurupa Oak was accidentally rediscovered, a team of botanists from the University of California, Riverside, and University of California, Davis, conducted a study of the tree and published their findings in a 2009 article in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, concluding that the tree sprouted from a single acorn in excess of 13,000 years ago. At the time of this tree’s beginning, Ice Age animals, such as mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, saber-toothed cats, and giant bears were still roaming Southern California and humans, just beginning to appear in California, hadn't even yet developed agriculture and were just beginning to domesticate animals.
The Jurupa Oak is located in the easternmost borderlands of historic Gabrieleño tribal territory. As do all original native peoples in California, the Gabrieleño celebrate oak trees as culturally significant and sacred, calling the tree the “staff of life.” Meal ground from oak acorns was vital in the native diet and feasts were held to celebrate oak trees. Gabrieleño descendants believe that their ancestors would have long revered and celebrated the ancient Jurupa Oak. In 2018, the Kizh Nation tribal group applied for recognition of the Jurupa Oak as a sacred site with the California Native American Heritage Commission.
Today, the region around the Jurupa Oak is experiencing rapid growth and the undeveloped land upon which the tree lives now faces adjacent residential and commercial development. Any nearby construction, without a clear determination of its impact on the ecological system that sustains the tree, poses a high risk of killing this ancient witness that has survived for 13 millennia to be one of the oldest living things on our planet.
The Gabrieleño people hope to draw the interest of the public and that of public officials to support the protection and preservation of the ancient Jurupa Oak, a tree that should be sacred to all of us. Until it can be protected, its specific location is not revealed so as to try to prevent the risk of vandalism and souvenir hunters.
We will post updates regarding the status of the Jurupa Oak here. We encourage you to help to call for protection of the Jurupa Oak in Riverside County by contacting California Governor Gavin Newsom by email or by telephone at (916) 445-2841 (or fax at 916-558-3160) or by writing him at:
Governor Gavin Newsom
1303 10th Street, Suite 1173
Sacramento, CA 95814