Field Director Larry Tift, bottom, and Archaeologist
Luke Piek of Gallegos and Associates, work on a horse
unearthed Tuesday at an archaeological dig on a hilltop
in Carlsbad on Wednesday.
Jamie Scott Lytle
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Centuries-old bones of horses
unearthed in Carlsbad
CARLSBAD ---- Archaeologists working
against the clock in Carlsbad have unearthed another nearly
intact skeleton of a horse that may have lived and died 50 years
before the Spanish began their conquest of California.
Last week's discovery, high on a hill overlooking the Agua
Hedionda lagoon, follows the discovery in June of the skeletal
remains of another horse and a small burro, said project manager
Dennis Gallegos of Gallegos and Associates, the contractor hired
to explore the site.
The finds are significant because
native North American horses were thought to have been extinct
more than 10,000 years ago, and the remains are older than the
recorded conquests by the Spanish, who reintroduced horses to
the New World.
"This is a story untold," said Mark Mojado, the cultural
representative for the San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians.
Why the animals were buried at all, why they were buried
together, and why they appear to have been buried in a
ritualistic way is a matter of academic conjecture, according to
archaeologists, paleontologists and others who have seen the
Radiocarbon dating of 340 years, plus or minus 40 years, puts
the death of the horse sometime between 1625 and 1705, Mojado
said. Therefore, the horses died at least 50 years before San
Diego Mission de Alcala, the first of the California missions,
was founded in 1769. The other horse and the burro were buried
at the same level, suggesting that they were buried about the
The bones of the horses and the donkey showed no signs of having
been shod, an indicator that the horses were not brought by the
Spanish, who fitted their horses with iron shoes, said Larry
Tift, a researcher with Gallegos.
The three animals were unearthed within a few feet of one
another on a hilltop overlooking the Agua Hedionda Lagoon,
The 900-square-meter site has also revealed several "shell
middens" ---- or layers of disturbed shells. A pile of small 2-
to 3-inch river rocks 20 feet away may have been a part of a
cooking pit or perhaps a sweat lodge, Tift said.
Shell beads, flaked cutting and scraping tools, grinding tools
such as metates and manos, even relatively recent pottery shards
found over the last seven weeks, tell the story of constant
habitation over 5,000 years on the hilltop, Tift said.
The radiocarbon date, if corroborated by more elaborate tests,
may be remarkable since North American horses were thought to
have been extinct by the late Pleistocene era more than 10,000
years ago, said Bradford Riney, a paleontology specialist with
the San Diego Natural History Museum.
"That would make (the site) extremely important," he said
Thursday. "It would be an early example of domestication."
Alternately, Mojado postulated that the horses may have been
Spanish in origin, perhaps from an ill-fated exploration that
never returned and so was lost to history. Perhaps the lost
Spanish explorers offered the horses and donkey to the American
Indians as a gift, Mojado said.
"There were no horses here then," he said. "They didn't know
what a horse or a donkey was. They would have seen them as big
deer or antelope."
As a gift, and an unusual gift at that, the animals most
certainly would have been revered, which could explain why they
were buried high on a hill in the same way some Indians buried
their own, Mojado said.
One horse and the donkey appear to have been buried
ritualistically with their heads to the north, faces to the
left, and their bodies "flexed" in the fetal position, an
American Indian method of burial. The newly discovered horse,
its ocher-colored bones already fading to yellow from exposure
to sun and air, was not similarly posed.
Researchers said they know horses were deliberately buried
because they can see definite lines where someone cut into the
shell layers to dig a burial pit.
"I've been doing this for 16 years and I've never seen anything
like it," Tift said.
The bones show no signs of cutting, splitting or crushing that
would indicate a violent death, Piek said. Researchers see no
signs the horses were butchered for meat.
Taken together, the features of the site suggest that the
hilltop was used by American Indians from about 5,000 years ago.
At that time, the region now called Carlsbad was much wetter and
more lush, with an average annual rainfall of about 350 inches.
Although sea level was lower than now, lagoons ---- fed by
freshwater springs ---- reached deeper into inland valleys,
providing a ready food and water source for its people, said
Gallegos archaeologist Lucas Piek.
The hilltops provided an ideal place to live, Tift said. The
ocean breezes would have helped cool dwellers and keep insects
away, as well as providing security. Inhabitants could watch the
approach of other humans and animals. The vantage point was also
ideal for observing the movements of game animals.
The site is one of more than 300 in the Carlsbad area, Mojado
said. A stone's throw away, researchers found the 8,000-year-old
remains of a human. Down in the valley, archaeologists uncovered
glass beads ---- trinkets brought from Spain ---- to trade with
California's Prehistoric State Artifact, a stone that some
believe is shaped like a bear, was found on the Kelly Ranch
property on a nearby hill to the north. Radiocarbon dating of
artifacts at that site suggest that humans occupied the area
more than 9,000 years ago.
Why was this site studied?
The cultural exploration is required by law as part of a study
of the environmental impacts the project will likely create. The
study examines traffic, noise, threats to indigenous plants and
animals, as well as potential damage to historically significant
sites. Gallegos said his work should conclude within two weeks.
Grand Pacific Resorts plans to break ground on a 700-room resort
on the hill on Aug. 1, said Tim Stripe, Grand Pacific Resort
Inc.'s co-president. The company plans to build 350 hotel rooms,
350 time-share units, two restaurants, four pools, tennis courts
and conference rooms on a 50-acre site between Cannon Road and
Hidden Valley Road. The $150 million, Mediterranean-style
complex will become Carlsbad's third large-scale resort.
After Gallegos and Associates has documented the site and
removed the animal skeletons and other artifacts, a portion of
the hilltop site will be capped with sand and soil to preserve
any remaining archaeological artifacts. A small park, planted
with native flora, is in the planning stage to preserve the site
as open space, Mojado said.
Contact staff writer Philip K. Ireland at 901-4043 or