This year on my birthday I’ve decided that when people ask how old I am I will say “73”.  Hopefully, the response will consistently be something along the lines of, “You look great for your age!”  As long as I’ve lived in Los Angeles (which is a long time considering my advanced age of 73) I’ve never visited the Channel Islands.  This year, for a birthday present, my husband decided to take me on a Santa Catalina Island camping vacation without the kids!  Knowing that Native Americans have occupied the Channel Islands for 13,000 years, I wanted to make sure to explore some archaeology.

We chose to take the ferry from the mainland to Two Harbors, then hike the Trans-Catalina trail about 5 miles to the Little Harbor Campground, which is an 8,000 year old Native American village and reportedly the most beautiful campground on the island.  Below is a video of our journey and a taste of the Trans-Catalina Trail.

Shark Harbor to the left. Little Harbor to the right.

Shark Harbor/Little Harbor and Campground with Michael way way down the trail.
This is how Michael efficiently charges his solar power pack while day hiking.


We found some archeological papers published about Torqua Cave, also known as Holder Cave, that was written of in 1910 by Charles Frederick Holder in his book The Channel Islands of California: A book for the angler, sportsman and tourist.  Following vague and random clues and using our common sense about how humans operate in the world we were able to nail down almost exactly where the Torqua Cave might be and we were right!  It was such a thrill to have mapped almost the exact path out in advance and then walk right up to it!  And boy, was it worth it!

Torqua Cave was positively plastered with red ochre pictographs.  Abalone shells are everywhere even though the beach is a mile or more down a mountain.  The cave complex has one main chamber, a smaller antechamber, and a small alcove.

There are two things that are particularly curious about Torqua Cave.  First, the cave is a family cave, a place where people lived, ate, cooked and slept on a daily basis.  That makes it an unlikely place to find an abundance of cave art which was usually created for ritual purposes by a shaman in a cave separate from mundane daily life.  What I think is that this is a cave that was used for daily life since antiquity, but after abandoned for such use, was later used by shaman/s for ritual purposes.  Otherwise it would have been odd, even something like sacrilegious, for ordinary people to have been conducting menial tasks in the presence of such powerful spirits.  It would be like washing dishes in the middle of a church.  Historically, that kind of thing only happens when an invading culture comes in and desecrates a holy temple by keeping goats in it or something.  I can’t imagine that’s what was happening here.  The art must have come later, after the cave was abandoned for daily use.

Another thing that is curious about Torqua Cave is that the art is reported by archaeologists to be in “Chumash style”, but the Chumash are not thought to have lived on the Southern Channel Islands that include Santa Catalina.  The people of the Southern Islands were the Tongva/Gabrielino.  I do have to agree, however, that the style does look Chumash.  One particularly Chumash feature is the human images’ adorable long thin bodies and little legs.  They are like tidy little cartoon characters.  See the examples of anthropomorphs from Torqua Cave below enhanced with D-Stretch.  Incidentally, the guy on the left is my absolute favorite image from Torqua Cave.  He is so cute and innocent looking with his big head, long body and tiny little feet.  Also, as adorable as he is, he is up to something.  Check out his long arm that’s snaking around an older, faded image of what looks like a turtle.  He has a charming mischievous side.  I want to put him on my shelf like a house elf.

To be serious for a moment, my house elf is very likely the representation of a shaman or high person being imbued with some kind of powers.  He is obviously a person, not a spirit being, because his feet are planted firmly on the ground and his body is not see-through. He also doesn’t appear to be in an altered state, e.g. floating.  I say he is a shaman or high person because he is wearing a headdress.   His long snaky arm painted over what I assume is a turtle could be a prayer that this high person may either be successful hunting this kind of animal, or be granted the kind of powers this animal is thought to have.  One of the things turtles represent in Native American symbology is “coexisting peacefully”.

Anthropomorph from Honanki in Arizona
Back to Chumash style anthropomorphs. Contrast the images above with this anthropomorph from Honanki, near Sedona, Arizona.  You can see the difference in style.  The Honanki person has longer, skinnier legs that are separated higher.  He has a round belly and a nice round, distinct head.

But why are Chumash style pictographs being painted on an island that is not thought to have been occupied by the Chumash?  First of all, when we are talking about 13,000 years of occupation that includes the subsequent arrival of the Tongva/Gabrielino and the Luiseño people.  There must have been blending of cultures.  To my mind, it is entirely possible to end up with a Tongva shaman who paints in a Chumash style.  In fact, I think it is probably an extremely common occurrence in rock art of the Los Angeles area.  The Chumash describe themselves as coastal people.  Their territory is described as being more or less bordered by the mountain ranges that separate the coast from inland.  In the Los Angeles area, Tongva territory was inland of the Santa Monica Mountain border, yet Chumash style pictographs have definitely been identified north/east of the Santa Monica Mountains, clearly in Tongva territory.  So, either people were running around all over the place leaving their distinctive cultural marks on other people’s territories, or spiritual cultures were blended and shared amongst people who lived, traded, and likely intermarried across shared boundaries.

As I said before, pictographs covered the walls inside Torqua Cave, but many of the images were barely visible to the naked eye.  Sometimes I could see part of an image and could faintly tell that there was some faded pain surrouning it, but it was nearly impossible to clearly see many of the images.  Fortunately, I brough my magic wand — D-Stretch.  You would have laughed to have watched Michael and I wandering around the cave, squinting our eyes at a faint, faded swipe of pigment, taking a photo of what we thought was an image, processing it through D-Stretch, then going “Oh my god!” When a perfectly clear surprise image popped up on the screen.  It was like opening presents on Christmas.

Here’s an example:

Ho hum.

The video below includes a D-stretch slideshow of most of the images I captured in Torqua Cave.  Some that I didn’t include were just too eroded to even be able to capture, they just looked like specs of pigment.  You will see that some in the slideshow have also been eroded away, but a significant portion is still visible.  Ignore all the neon colors.  The pictographs are the images that look dark red.

Back at Little Harbor I had a life-changing experience.  I climbed down the point that separates Shark Harbor from Little Harbor and sat on the boulders at the base of the cliff that were being inundated with waves.

Cliffside cove inundated with waves

Out onto the rocks being inundated with waves
littleharbor5 I left my camera up top with Michael who wouldn’t come down with me because, according to him, he wasn’t wearing the right shoes.  I privately wondered if he thought the Tongva people needed to be wearing Merrills to walk down the rocks to the water, but I decided not to pick on him that day.  What I wish I could show you was the view from below.  The ocean swirled around me and at the base of the cliff was a rectangular trough-like basin about 10 ft by 4 ft wide.  It is possible it is natural.  I wasn’t able to go over to it because it was on the far side of the cove, but it looked like it had been carved from the rock. It had very distinct angles.  Knowing that Little Harbor was a village used for about 8,000 years, I wonder if the trough was a place to store live fish or shellfish after they were caught or gathered.  That was actually Michael’s idea after I explained to him what I saw, and I think it is a very good one.

Sitting amongst the rocks, the sprays of water, the crashing sound of the waves on a warm, humid summer day, it was a full sensory spiritual experience and I was very much enveloped within it.  I could feel a change in the ions in this place where all the elements crashed into one another.  Earth, air, fire (sun), and water all smashed and swirled together in this pocket at the base of the cliff.  The quality of the sound it made I
can only think to describe as a gentle cacophony.  The crashing roar of the waves was simultaneously softened by the sounds of spray and ebbing water.  It was marvelous.  IMG_7973It let me experience, first hand, a types of ancient healing I’ve read about and seen pictures of, but never had the opportunity to try.  See my post on these petroglyphs near Joshua Tree National Park that I believe have Magnetic Medicine Magic

The air/sky holds the atmospheric fields and magnetic currents, the rocks/ground holds the telluric fields and magnetic currents.  So when you both expose your body to the air and plant your bare feet on the ground you are allowing atmospheric and telluric currents to flow freely through your body.  Crashing water increases the negative ions in the air by as much as five times, which in an of itself promotes vitality.  Adding the acoustics of water brings in the element of primordial sounds into the overall sensual experience.  Primordial sounds are waves of sound that are harmonic (as opposed to dissonant like the sound of an ambulance siren).  When you hear them, your brain switches from a beta state (logical, stress-oriented, verbal) to an alpha state (conceptual, creative, meditative). Overall, the experience of sitting on this rocky cove of crashing crashing water made me feel gooooooooooooooood and peaceful, even kind of high.  I vowed to make it a point to seek out more experiences like this.  Fortunately, I live near the beach and its easy to talk my kids into clambering out on rocks at the shore.  I’ll report in if I find any more magical healing coves along the Los Angeles shore.

After a wonderful couple of days camping and exploring we caught the shuttle back to Two Harbors.

We wait for the bus island style.
See ya next time!


12 thoughts

  1. Awesome adventure! I’ve been to Catalina many times, but I’ve never seen pictographs. Thanks for the insoriation to do that hike myself one day soon. You rock!

  2. Thank you so much for such a thoughtful explanation -I teach art history…. I’m from California but I never knew there were any pictographs or petroglyphs there 🌵thank you so much, Sandra in Tucson

  3. In your selfishness in needing to show the world you found the cave you have made it much easier for artifact hunters to easily find it. Posting so many landscape visuals will undoubtedly make it easier for the professional poacher and the trinket collector alike. Did you know you were trampling the only know location of Indian tobacco on the island? It’s a sensitive site culturally and biologically. You’re a typical American who likes native culture but has no respect for native people. Island sites are some of the most intact sites left in California, and they are like libraries of information to people who have lost their culture. You are contributing to the potential loss of what they have left. Why do you think there is no graffiti at the site like you find on the mainland? Why is there no trash? Why haven’t Hunter’s taken shots at them? Why haven’t people tried to chip off the rock art? Why can you find whole abalone shells and other artifacts? It’s because it’s hard to get to. But you, you “respect” it so much you have to tell the world about it. You did your homework, you found it. Good for you. But how about letting the next dedicated adventurer do their homework and find it. But, NO, you need to brag. Enjoy, but keep it to yourself. If that is too difficult for you to do, then please for protection of these valuable and sacred sites don’t give away any clues to their location.

    1. Interesting comment. Clearly you haven’t much experience with prehistoric Native American archaeological sites if you think it is rare to find one undisturbed. It means you subscribe to the myth that archaeological sites are rare and those that are known are usually vandalized. If you traveled more in the Southwest you would be embarrassed at how untrue that assumption is. The truth is that prehistoric population density of North America (especially California and the Southwest) was unbelievably dense as is evidenced by archaeological sites complete with artifacts and parietal art still extant in every canyon and mountaintop with an ancient water source or hierophany related to solstices or equinoxes almost everywhere in the entire southwestern quadrant of the continent. The same is probably true further east, but the climate of the Southeast doesn’t lend itself to preservation like the Southwest does.

      You also obviously know nothing of this particular site and you likely couldn’t find it even after watching this video even if you did research and try to interpret the vague descriptions in the antique writings about it and hike and try to bushwhack your way to it. (If you do find it let me know because I will be shocked.) Furthermore, that site is anything but pristine. It has been overturned by archaeologists and raided by Catalina-based “museum” collectors for a century.

      I am American — Native American — and my father suffered in the Southwest because of the color of his skin, but he believed that education could and would elevate him and others. He raised himself from a poor brown person in the 1930s who wasnt allowed to swim in the public pool to a superintendent of schools who started the local chapter of Hispanic Youth Leadership Counsel to inspire young people of color to pursue college and community leadership. He was awarded the highest honor bestowed to a civilian by the Boyscouts of America for this work, The Silver Beaver Award. He showed me the way. It is in this spirit that I adopt the attitude of my father AND the established and ancient Zuni, that education promotes integrity and preservation of cultural values, not the reverse.

      Helping Anglos understand what schools don’t teach, that “pre-contact” Native American populations were both exceptionally ancient and advanced and most importantly EVERYWHERE is important to correcting the narrative promoted by Manifest Destiny that continues to harm brown people to this day.

      People simply have no awareness of the living history that surrounds them in the form of sacred landscapes. They have no understanding that their houses are built upon Native artifacts because housing developments have always been built next to water sources.

      People only love what they understand and they only protect what they love. Think carefully about whether or not your comment here is informed or loving or helpful and remember that reflection next time you feel like expressing your inner internet troll. Are you promoting the truth about Native American ownership of the land since deep antiquity or are you promoting ignorance which maintains the racist status quo? Think about it.

      1. Greetings first of all -thanks to everyone for the conversation. I’m a “Non Western” (I know, there’s hypocrisy for you) PhD and I teach Indigenous art at a Southwest University. It is sadly and certainly true – most sites have been trampled through, by various people with different intentions, over different times- many things have been stolen, moved… In academia, the way to preserve something is to photograph it and make sure that it is visually and possible physically saved in case someone does further damage.
        I showed this exchange to my Yurok brother-in- law (Northern California). He doesn’t like archaeologists/ anthropologist nor wants to talk about this/I was even suspect to him until he got to know me for now 20 + years. He was raised on the reservation so I get/respect that. …his complaint is his Nation has no say in these types of matters. I won’t fully use some of the names of people who write popular books on SW archaeology- (Craig!…YNWUR…..) who coyly divulge where scared sites are up in Utah, NM and Arizona that still have burial areas- This is for preservation? Or education? Or $$$ to sell books. But…If you don’t preserve it, once everybody knows about it -it gets destroyed – The Paleolithic cave at Lascaux….? Preserved or destroyed? Yes and no. This is the sorrowful discussion for me to be honest. Seriously….deep, personal… I have no good answer for either of you.
        Here’s what none of us want to hear -there’s no good solution. One could think they were keeping it safe by not mentioning it, or by not saying/photographing where it is -but many already know. Pandora’s box was opened…I respect both views. I stay clear of it /but I understand the anger of the people who want to explain it, to keep their culture alive while others want to preserve it by silence but….for once …I wish the indigenous cultures would be allowed to decide how things should be. Get the real Katsinas back into Hopi hands- The Ghost Dance clothing should be given back to the various Dakotas- not hung in the Heard Museum (I’d catch hell if they get wind of me saying that) etc.
        I realize the loss… anger – I’m just trying to give a middle ground explanation. There’s so much healing that needs to be done for the 564 federally recognized Nations -and the current “commander in chief” right now is dividing everybody over everything – so for all of us who care about Indigenous rights, let’s not divide further. I so thank everyone for caring.
        I do come with one request- don’t forget Standing Rock ….the pipeline…. Water is sacred. SB

  4. If I came off as an internet troll- than I apologize. That was not my intention. Your video frustrated me because I have been to sites repeatedly over time that have been looted or vandalized. My intention was to convey to you that from your video- you gave away although briefly- landmarks that can be used to locate the site. I am not Tongva, but I am American Indian. I was raised with traditional beliefs- these sites are not dead- they are active. People still pray at these sites. My family is active in the Southern California Native community. I have been to the site several times having lived on the island for nearly a decade. I know of petroglyphs on the island that no one else is aware of (petroglyphs are not documented from this island), so I know of a lot of sites. Like you, I found the site by reading the literature (pre-internet) and doing my homework. People like us do not vandalize sites, and although as you stated there are sites pretty much everywhere most not being vandalized- but people do. People impact sites unknowingly too- but I will address that later. Just because this site has been looted over the last century as you stated does not mean it doesn’t have further information to provide. The Tongva have lost a lot, you and I can help keep what they have left by protecting these sites and not providing clues to their where-abouts. Like you, I believe that you can’t respect what you don’t know- so educating people of the importance of archaeological sites and how rich our region is with them is important. There are 19 million people in our region, Catalina receives over a million visitors/yr. If your video helps a handful of disrespecting knuckleheads find the site- you know what damage they can do. Maybe well meaning people get to the site- love it, but want to take an abalone shell home as a keep sake. I’m just asking you not to show the horizon line of any sites. Don’t make it easy for the masses to find them. Educate them? Yes. Show how special they are? Yes. But don’t show them where they are. I’m not promoting some antiquated idea (as you accuse me of) that there are very few sites. Most of the Santa Barbara Coast and Channel Islands are cultural landscapes. I find sites all the time in my work out in nature. I share with people what I have seen, but I don’t tell them where they are. If you think people don’t or won’t loot- I would strongly argue that you are wrong. I have seen people take little keep-sakes like an abalone shell, projectile point, tar ball, or bead. If each person does this, then the sites is impacted. People dig up the abalone at this site, look at them, and then leave them in a pile. Next time I come back, all the abalone are gone, then the pattern repeats itself. Archaeologist can count the abundance of a particular species of shell or bone and determine diet and ecology of the area. Yes the site has been impacted, but that is not license to impact it more. Have you seen Mocking Bird Canyon? The site is completely trashed (litter, gun shots to pictographs, chiseling away of pictographs, graffiti. Have you been to the Old Woman’s? No vandalism. Why? Mocking bird is highly known and a lot of people go to it. Old Woman’s- fairly known, but remote, and lots of education materials regarding respecting the site. Torqua- yes, it is covered in cactus, but people visit it, more and more people are visiting Catalina every year, LA is getting more crowded, most people have no understanding of native cultural sites. So what I would ask of you is- before you give away any clues to a site- make sure the public is educated first. Otherwise- material is going to walk off or worse. I know you don’t think you gave away any clues, but if I had your video clip and what I can download of the internet today- I would have found the site a lot faster. You can still post your videos, but please show respect in helping to preserve sites by not making them more accessible. This site is active- I know Tongva that come a pray at it. They have lost nearly everything- help them keep what little they have left.

  5. In response to SB- Although I am Native American, I am not Tongva- its not my land. Like you, I think the people who these cultural sites belong should have the say in how they are managed and shared- not me nor anyone else. If the Tongva want to share it, then that is up to them. I really love this site- its special, but I don’t go there often because I know every time I do, I just make it a little easier for the next person to navigate through the cactus. This isn’t a site like the Maze Stone where teenagers go a party. This is a site that is so special, that people want to take just a little bit of it home with them, and that is where the trouble lies. Even if the site is not studied (like or dislike archaeology), its the Tongva’s not mine or anyone else to decide how it is shared. One of the few times I visited the site- I documented a new species to the island of Indian tobacco that had never been documented before. Most likely, it was seed in the midden that just happen to emerge after a nearly 200 years. It was right in trail between the large and small cave, which means any person who does not know their plants probably would just trample it. Its no longer there. Thus, another element of this site gone. Hopefully it went to seed and replenished the seedbank, but who knows. These sites are not ancient. People visit them and assume they are not being used by native peoples, but many sites are and this one is. It isn’t the “Ancient Southwest” it is current and active.

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