Skills of Ancient Civilization Come to Life at Historical Society Kick-Off Event

(Joel Gregor, Photographer)
“Doc” Hale stands by a Native American tule house at the annual Ancient Ways Gathering held at Sugarloaf Open Space.

    The Orinda Historical Society kicked off its latest season of events with a keynote presentation by renowned ethnobiologist, Dr. James Hale. 
    “Doc Hale,” as he is universally known, promised his audience a whirlwind “ricochetorial” and kept people engaged with a fast-paced slide show punctuated by a display of ancient artifacts, largely from the Clovis people, who are generally considered to be the ancestors of about 80 percent of all Native American populations in the Americas — their name derived from the New Mexico archeological site where their remains were first unearthed.  
    At the May 30 event, Hale brought buckets of ceremonial beads — one might find 10,000 beads in just one burial site. While the temptation to run one’s hands through the thousands of delicate beads was overwhelming, such daring was emphatically discouraged by the hand-scribbled “do not touch” signs propped against each bowl of beads. 
    As Hale pointed out, these primitive cultures didn’t have the technology that we do today, and yet the beads, whistles, hair slides and tools on display, all painstakingly fashioned by hand, were exquisite works of art that have endured for 
    Hale also showed examples of beautifully crafted slender spear points, made largely from obsidian and similar materials. Hale brandished such a spear — which he used more casually than one would expect of a 10,000-year-old artifact — in place of a regular pointer when a map flashed up on his screen detailing the tribes and “tribelets” of prehistoric America.
    As a member of both the Bay Area Rock Art Research Association and American Rock Art Research Association, Hale has led interpretive field trips to cultural sites throughout the United States as evidenced by the slides he produced, detailing pictographs that he discovered on Mt. Diablo, drawn by Contra Costa’s nomadic peoples 10,000 years ago.
    With the aid of modern technology, 21st century denizens could make out pictures of hummingbirds, saber toothed tigers, even the Crab Nebula with – quite possibly – Hailey’s Comet passing by.  
    Hale, too, has discovered ancient prayer circles all over Contra Costa County and, with the aid of ground penetrating radar, was able to produce the mind-blowing photograph of an ancient Shaman, buried deep beneath the surface, still clothed in his traditional attire. 
    He also showed slides of fabulous rocks that were covered not only in delicate pictographs executed by extinct cultures, but also modern-day graffiti, painted, he said, “by idiots with a beer in one hand and a can of spray paint in the other.” 
    “We need to protect these cultural sites by not revealing their whereabouts,” says Hale. That is why most of us are unlikely to find ourselves stumbling across cave drawings or the bones of civilizations long past. But with Hale’s help, people can still be made aware of their existence and the culture inherited from Contra Costa’s first Americans.  
    The Orinda History Museum is on the ground floor of the Orinda Library, directly adjacent to the parking garage. Open Wednesday 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. or call (925) 254-1353 to arrange a visit. For more information go to

Alison Burns is a Contributing Writer

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