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Why Are People Looting Clear Lake?

Thanks to drought and wildfire, previously hidden archaeological sites are now being exposed to passersby. And that's leading to a lot of theft.
Clear Lake, California. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Clear Lake, California. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A few hours north of San Francisco, Native American artifacts dating back 8,000 years line the rim of Clear Lake, the largest freshwater lake in California. These remnants of the Native American tribes who inhabited the region as early as 6,000 B.C.E.—from small items like obsidian spearheads and tools for grinding to entire burial sites—are still plentiful along the lakeshore. Spanning some 68 square miles, geologists estimate Clear Lake is at least 2.5 million years old. It's no surprise, then, to see the area become something of an archeological hot spot in recent years. And looters are taking notice.

Precious archaeological sites, once out of sight from most passersby, are now being exposed as drought and wildfire continue to decimate brush, grass, and forest across California's parched landscape.

"Methamphetamine addicts are more or less ideally suited to looting archaeological sites."

"I think there’s more looting going on today than ever before, and I think it’s only going to get worse," says Martin McAllister, a forensic archaeologist with Archaeological Damage Investigation & Assessment. And looting is bound to intensify, McCallister adds, in the coming winter. If seasonal rains, should they ever come, wash away residual ash from this year's epic wildfire season, even more archeological sites will be uncovered across the state.

"I predict there's going to be a lot of looting of archeological sites this coming winter in California that are going to be directly related to the wildfire," he says.

Since the 1970s, McAllister has been training law enforcement in detecting, investigating, and prosecuting archeological violations to prehistoric or historic sites. As drought continues to persist, sites previously underwater around lakes and river beds will be exposed as water levels recede, he says. The same goes for man-made reservoirs.

"Prehistoric people didn’t just turn on the tap when they needed water to drink," McAllister says. "Whenever we find lakes or other perennial sources of water, you're always going to find archaeological sites because people wanted to live close to where they would have a ready supply of water."

Less than a week after McAllister co-hosted a looting training session in August led by the Lake County Sheriff’s Department and the Koi Nation—descendants of Clear Lake’s ancient Pomo Indian tribes—a Lake County man was arrested for looting in the area. Unauthorized excavation or vandalizing of Native American artifacts can be a felony offense, protected under both federal and state law.

As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, the suspect was found with a satchel full of spear points, hand tools, and obsidian flakes in the back of his van. He was also, according to police records, in possession of marijuana and methamphetamine. (He was jailed on suspicion of the crimes, including possession of Native American artifacts and removing objects of archeological or historical interest, according to reports.) This appears to be no coincidence: The rise of meth addiction near known relic sites has contributed to an uptick in looting, according to McAllister. The intense energy rush and extreme paranoia accompanying a meth high can make digging in a remote, secluded archaeological site for hours on end especially appealing, he says.

Methamphetamine use and looting are commonplace throughout much of the United States, including Oregon, New Mexico, and Arizona, according to Blythe Bowman Proulx, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. "The intersection of violence and drugs with looting is useful in that it garners attention for the theft and illicit export of antiquities, an issue generally understudied among criminologists," she writes in a 2011 study on the dangers of archeological fieldwork. In other words, people are taking note of these addicts' actions.

"As my law enforcement friends tell me, methamphetamine addicts are more or less ideally suited to looting archaeological sites," McAllister says. "I don’t know that a lot of archaeologists would like me to say this, but when you have an artifact in your hand, you might as well have a packet of cash."