For UCLA expert on Chumash Indians, roughly hewn beads are child's play

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As the world's leading authority on beads manufactured from shells by California's Chumash Indians, UCLA archaeologist Jeanne Arnold was stumped by a series of anomalous artifacts excavated at former settlements on the Channel Islands. Pierced with more than one hole, often at unconventional angles or too close to the edges, the oddly configured multi-hole beads differ considerably from the smooth, round, precisely drilled beauties that served as currency among the Chumash prior to the arrival of Europeans in Southern California. 

After closer analysis, however, she now believes the shell artifacts, which are nearly 250 years old, provide a rare window into a little-known world: the efforts of young apprentices, possibly children, among traditional peoples.  

The rugged Channel Islands, located 60 miles west of Malibu, were home to more than 3,000 Chumash people who operated North America's largest and most spectacular shell-working enterprise. Santa Cruz Island, which has an abundant outcropping of flint suitable for drilling tools, served as the center of these activities, which date back more than 1,000 years.

Islanders made shell ornaments, decorative beads and pendants, and most extensively of all, shell beads that served as currency. The group's monopoly on currency-making made the islands the "mint" for Chumash transactions in Central and Southern California, Arnold said. Chumash-made beads have been found as far away as northern Nevada and the Four Corners area of the Southwest.

In the past 15 years, archaeology crews working under Arnold's supervision have unearthed roughly 320 unconventional shell beads amid thousands of standard beads at the sites of two former villages on Santa Cruz's coast. Previously dismissed either as mistakes or attempts at innovations by journeyman bead-makers, these tiny white beads actually reflect a range of production errors at the hands of novices, Arnold argues. 

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