Archaeology Reveals Past Lives of Bay Area Native Tribe: Phil Gross and Far Western Produce National PBS Documentary

Charlene Nimjeh (Muwekma Ohlone Tribe Leader), Monica Arellano and Brian Byrd examine artifacts at Far Western’s lab

Time Has Many Voices, a film created by Phil Gross and Far Western’s Brian Byrd, to be aired on PBS stations around the country as part of Native American Heritage Month, tells the story of the modern-day people of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area who partnered with Byrd’s firm, Far Western Anthropological Research Group, in the excavation of Sii Túupentak, a pre-contact Ohlone village in the Sunol Valley.

Excavators sift dirt to find the smallest of artifacts at the Síi Túupentak site

Using cutting edge archeological science to reveal details about individual Muwekma ancestors, the documentary brings to life new discoveries of how the tribe flourished in the East Bay for millennia as part of a vast network of California Native peoples who thrived from the bay marshes to the coastal ranges. The arrival of the Spanish in the late 1700s brought enslavement, colonial rule, starvation and disease, and, in 1925, the United States government declared the Ohlone extinct. Despite that declaration, the film emphasizes that the Muwekma Ohlone survive and thrive to this day. With the help of science, the Muwekma hoped not only to discover stories of their ancestors and honor their past, but to lay claim to their existence and pave the way for the future of this Ohlone tribe.  

This is the third film collaboration between Davis based Far Western and director Phil Gross to be offered to PBS. In 2003, their film The Obsidian Trail was presented by KVIE in Sacramento and aired on more than 40 stations nationwide. A more recent film, A Point in Time (2019), chronicling the archaeological search for the earliest inhabitants of the Nevada Great Basin is currently streaming on PBS via KLVX Las Vegas. 

Time has Many Voices premiered locally on Monday, Nov. 7, at 10 p.m. on KVIE Sacramento. It will be shown on other regional PBS stations and will have nationwide distribution later this month. It is currently streaming on and can be accessed on that site by typing “Time Has Many Voices” in the search window. 

Publication of Seven Thousand Years of Native American History in the Sacramento Valley

Far Western is pleased to announce the publication of Seven Thousand Years of Native American History in the Sacramento Valley: Results of Archaeological Investigations Near Hamilton City, California, by Dr. William R. Hildebrandt and Kelly R. McGuire, with contributions by Dr. Adrian Whitaker and Dr. Brian Byrd, as well as Laboratory Director Laura Harold. Publication would not have been possible without close collaboration with the Mechoopda Indian Tribe.

This volume, available through the University of Utah Anthropological Papers, shares the discovery of four archaeological sites deeply buried under a young floodplain. The oldest site dates to 7,000 years ago and revealed a diverse assemblage of artifacts among a rich assortment of food remains. The other three sites date between 4000 and 300 years ago. These sites show changes in population density, technological innovation, and the rise of sedentism and territoriality. Dating to just before 300 years ago, the most recent site featured a house complex, likely occupied by the Mechoopda Indian Tribe and provided a culmination to the historical sequence evident in the artifacts and features.

The archaeological sites featured in this publication highlight the rich and diverse environment of northern California’s Sacramento Valley, which supported some of the densest populations of non-agricultural people in the world. The investigation also highlights how alluvium deposited during periodic flooding buries sites and their cultural remains, preserving an archaeological record that may be otherwise invisible on the surface of those landscapes that have only formed recently.

“This book is hugely important. It is the first publication that provides a well-supported backstory for the emergence of the California acorn economy. It includes fish and botanical remains from well-dated, well-sampled occupations that indicate reliance on acorns and fishing as far back as 7,000 cal BP., pushing the roots of this remarkable way of life thousands of years earlier than previously thought.”

—Terry L. Jones, professor of anthropology, California Polytechnic State University

“This will stand as important regional literature. The discovery of extremely ancient archaeological deposits in the Sacramento Valley, where old surfaces and sites are generally buried beneath thick alluvium, is of itself important. The study also reports on robust faunal and botanical assemblages that are largely lacking from this area.”

—Mark E. Basgall, professor emeritus, Department of Anthropology, California

Archaeology Education for the Visually-impaired Community

Following the 2017 Nuns Fire in the Napa region, a PG&E forester uncovered artifacts that are currently being used to help educate the members of the Visually-impaired community about the regions past. In a joint effort, PG&E partners and Far Western Principal Investigator Eric Wohlgemuth and Art Director Tammara Norton delivered artifacts and educational materials to Enchanted Hills Camp, where adults and children who are blind, Deafblind, or have low vision will be able to interact with them.

“The artifact collection will live here rather than an academic or museum setting. It will be used in different ways. Parts will be used in a touch box, where we made replicates that students can handle, with Braille tags explaining what they were used for. We will put the collection in a display case, with a resource guide in Braille that explains and describes the findings and gives information about the Wappo Tribe,” said Dr. Eric Wohlgemuth, Far Western Anthropological Research Group.

“This is an unparalleled opportunity for students who are blind or have low vision to learn about archaeology in a tactile way,” he added.

In addition to the tags, an educational book about the excavation is provided both in Braille and in print. Together the tags and educational book provide the students with information about the Wappo Tribe.

The items uncovered point to the site being used as a family summer camp, with artifacts including tools for cutting, scraping, and grinding, spearpoints, arrowheads, animal bones, and beads made from ocean shells, all dating from 200-400 years ago. During the excavation process, archaeologists uncovered a larger obsidian dart point that was used with atlatl (spear-thrower), which is estimated to be 920-750 years old.

The camp is located in the forest of Mount Veeder, on what is the traditional land of the Mishewal Wappo Tribe of Alexander Valley.

To read the full PG&E article:

McGuire earns the SCA Baumhoff Award

At the 2022 SCA Annual meeting, Kelly McGuire, one of Far Western’s founders, was awarded the Martin A. Baumhoff Special Achievement Award. Here’s a bit of what Bill Hildebrandt had to say about presenting Kelly with this award:

“This award is for people that have a career of conducting outstanding research and publication. This year’s recipient, Kelly McGuire, has certainly achieved these things and much, much more. Kelly has had a long and successful career in archaeology and has shown a remarkable ability to translate his findings into publications that are relevant to regional, national, and international audiences. He is a founding member of Far Western Anthropological Research Group, and the only person that has worked there for its entire 42-year history. California archaeology would not be what it is today without McGuire’s contribution to the creation and ongoing success of Far Western. Kelly McGuire’s multi-decade record of conducting meaningful research and publishing his findings in the some of the most prestigious archaeological outlets that we have, makes him a deserving recipient of the Martin A. Baumhoff Special Achievement Award.”

Congrats Kelly!