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Language of the Land: The California Serengeti
A visit to the Golden Gate during the time of the last Ice Age would have been a much different experience than it is today. There was no San Francisco Bay 18,000 years ago. Instead, what is now the bay was then a wide, grassy valley teeming with wildlife. The Franciscan Valley extended from near San Juan Bautista in the south, to Cloverdale in the north, encompassing our local Petaluma and Sonoma Valleys and the Santa Rosa Plain. There were herds of mammoth and mastodon, camel and horse. Herds of bison darkened the areas they grazed. And mingling with these great herbivores were fierce predators, such as the short-faced bear and saber-toothed cat, packs of dire wolves, and prides of California lion. Meanwhile, large condors busied themselves disposing of the dead.

To the west, where we normally expect to see the Pacific Ocean, there was a broad coastal prairie covered with grasses and tree-lined streams. The Farallon Plain stretched from what is now the Monterey Bay north to above Salt Point. Ample wildlife could be found here as well. From the Golden Gate, the beach was far too distant to see as the coast was then about 20 miles west of San Francisco. Long darkened lines of wild bison and horse, and occasionally the mammoth, moved back and forth through the Golden Gate, journeying to and from the coast. It would have been an awe-inspiring sight. A more local route to the coast was along the Russian River. Another route connected Petaluma with the Esteros San Antonio and Americano.

The San Francisco Bay region during the late Pleistocene was grander than anything imaginable. The closest comparison is the famous Serengeti Plain of East Africa as described in early historic times. The California Serengeti, 18,000 years ago, was among the greatest natural phenomena of all time. You have to see it to believe it!

Dec 15, 2020 07:00 PM in Pacific Time (US and Canada)

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Breck Parkman
Breck Parkman was born and raised in Georgia but has made California his home since 1971. Breck retired from State service in 2017, after forty years as a State Archaeologist. His work took him to all corners of the Golden State, as well as to Kodiak Island, Alaska; the Canadian Plains; the South Coast of Peru; and Central Siberia, among other places. Breck earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in Anthropology at California State University, Hayward. He was the founding Director of the UNESCO-sponsored Fort Ross ~ Global Village Project (1996-2000) and he is a former Research Associate at the University of California at Berkeley and a Past President of the Society for California Archaeology. Currently, Breck sits on the Board of Directors of two local non-profits, the Sonoma Ecology Center and The Olompali People. Breck’s research interests are broad and range from Ice Age megafauna to Russian America and the archaeology of the Grateful Dead.