April 22, 2019

Photo Essay: The Past Lives of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Located in the Colorado Desert portion of San Diego’s East County—between the Cleveland National Forest and the Salton Sea—lies California's largest state park, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Most people just go for the superbloom to look at wildflowers and flowering cacti...

...and miss out on all there is to learn about the history of human (and animal) use of the canyons, dry lakes, valleys, and badlands of the area.

Occasional public tours of the Begole Archaeological Research Center reveal the secret lives of Anza-Borrego's first inhabitants, the Kumeyaay... they gathered food...

...and prepared it using groundstones (a.k.a. metate, or mortar)...

...and other tools (e.g. mano, or pestle).

More recent human use of the land is now part of the archaeological record, too, from soldiers stationed nearby during World War II... miners looking for a form of calcium carbonate, calcite, which was used in the Norden bombsight technology to improve bomb-dropping accuracy in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Traces of the more common lifestyle of the 20th century everyman can be found in the Begole Archaeology Library, which is open to the public on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

In addition to occasional talks, this non-circulating library also displays rotating exhibits...

...the current one focusing on the Butterfield stagecoach line that ran through Warner Springs and the Carrizo Corridor (now Ocotillo) along the Southern Emigrant Trail.

In The Stout Research Center Laboratory and Paleontology Collection Hall, however, the focus is on non-human animals. 

From modern-day reassembled skeletons of a local mountain lion (Puma concolor) from the early 2000s...

...and a Greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus)... examples of the fauna of days gone by, like the fossil cast of a Harlan's giant ground sloth, Paramylodon harlani)...

...and plenty of skulls with jaws of varying sizes... can explore a fraction of what comprises the longest continuous fossil record in North America.

In addition to the ancient and extinct saber-toothed cat (Smilodon fatalis, the California state fossil)...

...there's also the short-faced bear (Arctodus), camels, mammoths, horses and the biggest tortoise you’ve ever seen (Hesperotestudo, a giant relative of the desert tortoise from the Pleistocene).

Their traces have been discovered and catalogued, whether an actual bone (or, say, tooth)...

...or a preserved footprint in prehistoric mud (like that of the large-headed llama, Lamaichnum borregoensis).

In some ways, it feels as though their work has just begun.

A current excavation work in progress is of a mammoth, for which researchers perform precision fossil cleaning with the help of tabletop micro-sandblasters, a dry process also known as "pencil blasting."

Because Anza-Borrego remains undeveloped—and even many of the roads and trails are considered backcountry—new discoveries are coming to light all the time.

And selfishly, I'm glad that most people don't consider the park a major destination outside of the spring wildflower season. Despite its enormous size, Anza-Borrego still feels like a well-kept secret.

I'd kind of like to keep it that way. I'd kind of like to keep it all to myself.

But I'm not very good at keeping secrets.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Creatures That Conquered the Desert
Photo Essay: Antelope Valley Indian Museum, Built into a Butte

1 comment:

  1. This otherwise well-done work has an error. Calcite was not used in the optics of the Norden Bombsight (or in any other part of the bombsight). I beleive this myth started becasue of a sign at the sight of the Calcite Mine in Borrego saying that calcite was used in bombsights and showing a picture of a B-17. Since the B-17 came equipted with a Norden Bombsite, somebody deduced that calcite was used in the Norden Bombsight. I have many references debunking this myth if you are interesdted.