Isotopic tracking of prehistoric pinniped foraging and distribution along the central California coast: preliminary results



Zooarchaeological data from Monterey Bay and the adjacent central California coast corroborate earlier observations from northern California and Oregon that Callorhinus ursinus (northern fur seal) was a much more common component in prehistoric marine mammal prey than its present pelagic distribution and foraging habits would predict. C. ursinus remains from mid-Holocene Monterey Bay occurrences are predominantly from female individuals, associated with an inshore piscifauna, and lack associated artifactual evidence for deep water exploitation. Taken together with evidence from Oregon, this suggests that mid-Holocene C. ursinus populations had different foraging, resting, and, arguably, reproductive behaviours than historically reported. Currently debated is whether the contrast between prehistoric and present patterns of pinniped species representation results from: 1) late Holocene prehistoric resource depression by aboriginal hunters, 2) depredations of the early historic fur trade, or 3) non-anthropogenic climatic or oceanographic change. The issue has thus far been addressed with presence or absence data on pinniped species and age/sex classes in dated contexts. While these are fundamental data, they cannot shed light on the nature of foraging behaviour of the species in question, a key dimension of the problem. This paper reports a pilot study utilizing stable isotope analysis aimed to elucidate prehistoric pinniped foraging patterns, specifically that of C. ursinus. Elements from six archaeological sites in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties were analysed for stable isotope compositions of carbon and nitrogen in bone collagen and compared to a latitudinally ordered modern dataset. Results for archaeological C. ursinus strongly suggest that prehistoric animals habitually foraged at lower latitudes than characterize the species today, supporting earlier claims of their year-round residency south of Alaska. Copyright © 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.