As James Benney approaches the site of what he believes was once a year-round Native American village, he can hardly contain his excitement. He has visited this location in the East Bay hills on more than twenty occasions since 2001, but still recalls with enthusiasm his first trip here.
"I continued on over this way, and then I saw this," he says. He is pointing toward a two-foot-tall sandstone rock that contains two or three shallow bedrock mortars softball-size depressions in which natives ground acorns and other foods using stone pestles. Then Benney hikes toward a flat, clear area ten feet across encircled by a partial ring of rocks and more mortars of various depths. "This could've been a house pit," he continues.
Soon he is standing at the center of a football-field-size plain, nearly surrounded by small sandstone boulders with mortars of myriad sizes and arrangements. Their high concentration suggests to Benney that this must have been an active village site for thousands of years. Though he has no formal training in archaeology or cultural anthropology, he speculates on the location of retreat routes, lookout points, defensive positions, and even a major trading ground nearby. "I still get thrilled by every one of them," he says with a sense of awe in his voice.
At one large rock, he pauses to demonstrate a practice he calls "daylighting." Reaching his hand deep into a mortar enough to fit his outstretched fingers and wrist he scoops out a handful of accumulated leaves, branches, and dirt. To Benney, merely placing his hands where native peoples once put theirs is an innately spiritual act. He believes it's important to open up the mortars to the air instead of allowing them to fill with detritus and eventually disappear. He considers daylighting a harmless and imperative part of appreciating these primitive food-preparation areas.
On the contrary, this seemingly innocuous act doesn't sit well with a host of archaeologists, Native American descendants, and East Bay Regional Parks District employees who consider daylighting a form of vandalism. But in their eyes Benney has also done much, much worse. Five years after discovering this site while wandering from a ranger-led bedrock mortar tour, he self-published a detailed guidebook containing driving and hiking directions to this and some forty other Ohlone, Bay Miwok, and Northern Valley Yokut sites here in the East Bay hills.
Most of those sites sit isolated and unprotected on land owned or managed by the East Bay Regional Parks District, the nation's largest regional park agency. The parks district is prohibited by state and federal law from publicly disclosing the locations of these and many other anthropological sites, due to their vulnerability. Laws such as the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 dramatically increased legal protection for such sites by entitling them to certain safeguards, one being nondisclosure by public land stewards. But there's nothing to stop private citizens from revealing the same information.
No one will debate Benney's right to be enthralled by the first village site he found. With 630 visible bedrock mortars, it's one of the most significant Native American sites in the state. Even if it wasn't actually a permanent settlement, it clearly saw a lot of use, and could hold important clues about how the region's earliest inhabitants lived. Most remarkably, it's been virtually untouched for more than two hundred years since Spanish explorers arrived in the 1770s and began forcing Native Americans away from the East Bay and into missions in San Francisco and Santa Clara. Today, the site sits on land owned by the parks district and the Contra Costa Water District.
What most upsets Benney's critics is that he provided GPS coordinates for the sites in his book. With portable GPS units available to the public for under a hundred dollars, the sites can now be accessed by virtually anyone who wants to hike out to them. Benney's book is the first of its kind to reveal this information, and critics believe it could expose the few remaining preserved native sites in the Bay Area to irrevocable damage.
Opponents are worried that Benney's book could serve as a treasure map for potential looters, or "pothunters," who have been known to dig up sites in search of artifacts such as arrowheads, pestles, grindstones, and spearpoints. It is illegal to remove them, but they can be stolen and sold to undiscriminating buyers for modest sums. A rare intact arrowhead with a sharp point can fetch hundreds of dollars.
"There are relatively few people doing this, but their impact is absolutely huge," said Gregg Castro, a Native American descendant with Ohlone ties who has worked for fifteen years to preserve native culture. "The first and only time it happens will totally decimate a site. We know from decades of experience that the more people that know about these sites, the more damage is going to happen, and there's no getting around that. ... We all wish this book didn't exist. This isn't the first time this has come up, but it's probably the most egregious."