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Forest Fire Reveals Native American Secrets

Last summer?s forest fire in the Sequoia National Forest in California has uncovered hundreds of American Indian relics, causing anthropologists to change their minds about the Indians who lived here thousands of years ago. As archaeologist Ken Wilson said, "This is about refining history, and there is still so much to learn."

Although road building is normally forbidden in this protected wilderness area, bulldozers had to construct emergency roads during the fire in order to get equipment to burning areas. Also, the flames were so fierce that they incinerated trees as well as underbrush, leaving a scorched, open plain. This created a rare opportunity for anthropologists to gain access to these unexplored wilderness areas.

The hills remain black with soot, dotted with splinters of dark wood that used to be tall trees. No living plants are visible, and even the roots of the trees were destroyed by the heat. Officials estimate that the forest will not be able to regenerate for 300 years.

So far, archaeologists have found more than 400 sites containing American Indian relics, some of them more than 3,000 years old. They discovered elaborate pictographs depicting swirling suns and stars that could have been used as calendars. In the last few years, Indians have revealed that they have always been in touch with the "Star People," so perhaps these images relate to this kind of contact.

The scientists came upon a large kitchen carved out of granite and found rocks that were used to extract fibers from fern stalks, which were then used to weave baskets. Also found were tools made of obsidian, that were used to clean animal hides. "We weren?t expecting to find anything of this magnitude," said Loreen J. Lomax, a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist.

The archaeologists think there were about 1,700 members of the Tubatulabal and Kawaiisu tribes in the area before they were driven out by miners and ranchers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Historical writings from that time depict the Indians as unsophisticated hunters and gatherers who lived meager lives. But now a complex culture emerged from the mists of the past, one in which people cooperated by doing specific tasks that benefited the whole society. "This was a large, established community," Lomax said. "They were not isolated and they were not very territorial. As a whole, they worked as a group. And there was a connection, a spirituality."

Many descendents of American Indians who live in the region feel that discovering these relics has stirred up spirits from the past. It?s been reported that some of the arrowheads that were dug up were too hot to touch, despite being buried in soil for hundreds of years. Lomax was skeptical of these claims, until she found herself in the woods alone one day and believed she heard chanting. "It?s been an experience," she said.

The finds are putting local Indians back in touch with a culture they thought had been lost forever. The U.S. government moved their ancestors onto reservations in the 19th century where many were taught at Catholic schools and forbidden to speak their language or celebrate their rituals. With no written language, their history was lost. Leonard Manueo Jr., a member of the Bakalachi tribe, said, "It was like we were gone. But here we are."

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