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Island fox research by CSULA team featured in BioScience

Summer field study reveals importance of foxes, dogs to San Nicolas Island natives

Picture of CSULA students excavating dog burials: Brendon Greenaway, Amira Ainis, (Amanda Taylor of the University of Washington), Jennie Allen, Rebekka Knierim, Ryan Glenn, Johanna Marty, and Margaret Kaleuati. Picture of CSULA students participating in the archaeological dig: Margaret Kaleuti, Barney Bartelle, Brendon Greenaway, Jennie Allen, and William Kendig. Picture of CSULA students working on the San Nicolas Island field project: Rebekka Knierim, Margaret Kaleuti, Brendon Greenaway, Fatima Hernandez, (Amanda Taylor) and Johanna Marty. Picture of CSULA student Margaret Kaleuti and professor Dr. René Vellanoweth uncovering dog burials during excavation process at the Tule Creek Village site.

Led by Cal State L.A.’s Anthropology Professor René Vellanoweth, a team of CSULA graduate students excavated ritual burials of island foxes and domestic dogs surrounded by hearths, pits and ceremonial artifacts on San Nicolas Island off the southern California’s coast last summer.

This archaeological venture to study the island fox population in an ancient settlement called Tule Creek Village was featured in an article, entitled “Island Fox Paradox,” published this year in BioScience, volume 60, number 5.

Supported by the Cotsen Grant, the CSULA anthropology majors—Amira Ainis, Jennie Allen, Barney Bartelle, Ryan Glenn, Brendon Greenaway, Richard Guttenberg, Fatima Hernandez, Carlos Hsien, Margaret Kaleuati, William Kendig, Rebekka Knierim, and Johanna Marty—participated in the field study through the CSULA Archaeological Field School.

According to Knierim, “Witnessing first-hand the care and gentleness that went into the burial of these dogs was quite emotional, and being a part of the excavation was extraordinary.”

Vellanoweth, who is also the chair of the Anthropology department at Cal State L.A., said, “It’s clear that the prehistoric people of San Nicolas Island revered the island fox, and that dogs and foxes played an important role in their lives.”

Pictured: René Vellanoweth with his pet dog.
René Vellanoweth with his pet, Daisy.

He added, “Both played an important role in native ceremonies, and were transported in canoes to the Channel Islands by native peoples.”

Bartelle said, “Excavating the dogs was beyond expectations because the placement of these dogs in this particular area of Tule Creek Village further confirmed the probability that it was a ceremonial area. Yet, southern California ethnography provides no information connecting dogs to religion.”

This past summer, the quest continued for remains of foxes and dogs at what is determined to be an earlier archaeological site of San Nicolas Island (dating approximately 4,500 years ago).

In the BioScience article, it also highlighted Vellanoweth’s recent work with Torben Rick of the Smithsonian Institute to carbon date several skeletons along with other remains found on the Channel Islands, that were thought to predate human settlement. This study supported their vision of the island fox as “a human-made species, the descendents of mainland foxes carried to a new land by people.”

Vellanoweth, who received his Ph.D. in anthropology from University of Oregon, taught at Humboldt State for seven years before coming to Cal State L.A. in 2008. His research focuses on the interaction of past human societies and their coastal environments.

To read the complete article, go to

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Last Update: 01/12/2016