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Caltech 'deeply' regrets drilling holes in sacred Native American petroglyph site

Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

That research was led by John Geissman, 69, a university professor at the time, who said he deeply regrets the incident.

“I made a big mistake, and it haunts me to this day,” said Geissman, who recently retired. “I have obligations as a geoscientist and a human being to do the right thing.”

As required under terms of that university’s 3-year-old settlement with the Bureau of Land Management, Geissman said he is working on an article to be published in an American Geophysical Union journal that “will include a sufficiently detailed section on my mistake.”

“Honestly, I recognize that I have been slow on this,” he said. “For the past few years I have been trying to graduate all my PhD students in a timely fashion, and that involves a lot of editing of many versions of manuscripts for publication.”

Then there was Cal State Northridge, which in 2008 paid $25,397 to settle a case that involved the unauthorized drilling of 41 1-inch holes into a petroglyph site on agency land about 15 miles south of Bishop.

Critics believe untold other drillings have gone unreported in volcanic landscapes across the West since paleomagnetic studies emerged as an important scientific endeavor in the 1950s.

 

At the 36,000-acre Volcanic Tablelands in Inyo County, geology runs wild: Cinder cones streaked with orange and red rise from desert badlands, along with sharp-edged cliffs and boulders that were created by a cataclysmic explosion 760,000 years ago.

Fish Slough, a National Natural Landmark on the eastern edge of the tablelands, includes vivid petroglyphs chipped into bizarrely eroded volcanic tuff formations that overlook a verdant desert oasis laced with meandering spring-fed creeks.

For researchers, its stark geological wonders contain detectable evidence of prehistoric shifts in the ability of Earth’s magnetic field to shield the planet’s surface from cosmic rays. Some researchers suggest these shifts may have influenced global climate and the evolution of species and entire ecosystems — from deep-sea vents to rainforests.

For Native Americans, however, the pictorial outbursts of sun discs, spirals, zigzags, deer, sheep, snakes and human figures etched into cliffs and boulders by prehistoric clans over scores of generations are part of a living spiritual world.

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