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Re-evaluating the origins of late Pleistocene fire areas on Santa Rosa Island, California, USA

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 July 2012

Torben C. Rick*
Program in Human Ecology and Archaeobiology, Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, 20013‐7012, USA
John S. Wah
Matapeake Soil and Environmental Consultants, Shippensburg, PA 17257, USA
Jon M. Erlandson
Museum of Natural and Cultural History and Department of Anthropology, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403‐1224, USA
Corresponding author. Email


At the close of the Pleistocene, fire regimes in North America changed significantly in response to climate change, megafaunal extinctions, anthropogenic burning and possibly, even an extraterrestrial impact. On California's Channel Islands, researchers have long debated the nature of late Pleistocene “fire areas,” discrete red zones in sedimentary deposits, interpreted by some as prehistoric mammoth-roasting pits created by humans. Further research found no evidence that these red zones were cultural in origin, and two hypotheses were advanced to explain their origin: natural fires and groundwater processes. Radiocarbon dating, X-ray diffraction analysis, and identification of charcoal from six red zones on Santa Rosa Island suggest that the studied features date between ~ 27,500 and 11,400 cal yr BP and resulted from burning or heating, not from groundwater processes. Our results show that fire was a component of late Pleistocene Channel Island ecology prior to and after human colonization of the islands, with no clear evidence for increased fire frequency coincident with Paleoindian settlement, extinction of pygmy mammoths, or a proposed Younger Dryas impact event.

University of Washington

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