Archeologist speaks for earth’s oldest oak

| April 1, 2020 | 2 Comments

PALMER’S OAK, Jurupa, Calif., is among Windsor Village archeologist’s many projects.

13,000 years ago, when the Tar Pit ooze was swallowing Ice Age mammoths, an unassuming little Palmer’s Oak, growing just south of what is now Fontana, cloned itself. Every time a forest fire attacked one of its limbs, the burnt branch would sprout a clone stem, thus insuring it would live forever — unless threatened by encroaching civilization.

With a 1,300-home development planned for the area, UCLA-trained archeologist Dr. Gary Stickel is worried.

“It is believed that there’s a natural cistern under the tree,” he posits. This would explain how this particular oak received enough water to survive the dry climate while the rest of the grove did not. He continues, “We don’t understand how extensive that support system is. Bulldozers can shake that out of alignment… If we had a proper study [of the oak’s underground support], who could object to that?”

The Hurunga, or Jurupa Oak, as it’s named for a once-nearby town inhabited by the Gabrieleno Band of Mission Indians / Kizh Nation, is considered sacred by Native Americans. Oaks, in general, are thought to be medicine trees, imbued with spiritual powers. That this particular oak is the third-oldest living organism on the planet makes it really important. That it represents a lasting remnant of Kizh (pronounced “Keech”) Nation culture and history, it’s doubly so to the tribe. That’s why Stickel got involved.

The Windsor Village archeologist was hired by the tribe to take up the tree’s cause. And the tree definitely needed some help with P.R. Unlike the towering redwoods, which are impossible to ignore, the Jurupa Oak isn’t much to look at. It doesn’t even look like an oak. “It looks like a big bush,” Stickel admits. Only four feet high, the oak overcompensates with its girth. The 70 clusters of cloned stems cover 2,000 square feet.

After contacting city and county representatives and the project developer, Richland Communities, Stickel feels left in the dark. Richland claims that they’ll give the oak wide berth, but Stickel and the Kizh hope they can get approval to use ground-penetrating radar to see if the cistern theory is correct and better understand what the tree needs to survive for thousands of years more.

“The Kizh are not against development, but they want to preserve, as well,” Stickel explains. “The tribe would like to see at least 45 acres around it preserved as a nature reserve and learning center for children — about the tree and about the Kizh.”

The Jurupa oak is one example of Stickel’s many causes since retiring from UCLA, where he taught archeology and anthropology. Ask the septuagenarian what he’s been up to, and he delights in regaling the listener about the time he found an intact spearhead from the ancient Clovis culture while working with the Chumash to protect Point Dume in Malibu.

Or his discovery of a sun stone, a rudimentary sundial, in the San Gabriel Mountains. Perhaps he’s most excited about his latest find: He believes he has found the lost palace of Odysseus. Archeologists have searched the Greek island of Ithaca, where it’s purported to be, but Stickel believes lands shifted over time and Kefalonia is the palace’s island.

As declared in the line of dialogue he provided when working as archeological consultant on “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — “They’re digging in the wrong place.”

By Helene Seifer

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Category: Real Estate

Comments (2)

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  1. Elijah Bernal says:

    Great article Ms. Seifer. I’ve had the privilege to work with Dr. Stickel, and I have seen his incredible devotion to preserving our history, much like the fictional character Indiana Jones. Though not a grand and beautiful oak, this oak is truly unique and one of a kind. It truly deserves the respect and protection that is given to other world treasures. This tree is a gift to all of us who reside in this beautiful State of California. How amazing it is that a life form can survive over 13,000 years through fires, droughts, and who knows what, only to find itself fighting off another foe, the urban sprawl. A true underdog this oak is. I guess we will not be happy until every square acre in California holds some sort of structure on it.

  2. Jim Watkins says:

    Thank you for this article. I enjoyed it, and hope they are able to find a way to preserve the growth of oak trees described. I am curious about the Gabrieleno village that is mentioned, Hurunga. One of my hobbies is leaning about local history, and I don’t recall coming across the name of that village before. Do you know if Hurunga is referring to Native American village of Jurupa, also sometimes spelled Jurumpa, or is Hurunga a separate village? I would be greatly interested in finding out more about the village, if you can point me in a helpful direction. Thank you for any help you can provide, and thank you again for providing this fascinating article.

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