A Richard Cerutti (1940-2019) Memorial Edition
Steven & Kathleen Holen, Editors.
Richard Cerutti Memorial
Steven Holen, Director of Research Center for American Paleolithic Research
Richard touched a lot of lives in a positive way as family, friends and colleagues all know. I would like to share with you how Richard changed my life so dramatically.
In the late 1990s an archaeologist colleague, Rob Bonnichsen, told me about the National City Mastodon Site and that it appeared to be a very old archaeological site. He urged me to go look at the material in San Diego. I forgot about the site for some years but read a book in 2007 that mentioned the site. At this point in my career, I had the time and money to travel to San Diego to view the collection.
I had been studying early humans in the Americas for many years and had excavated many mammoth sites in the Great Plains that had evidence of human association dating to 20,000 to 33,000 years ago. I was working on a book chapter stating this and thought I was one of the leading experts on the subject and that humans could not have been in the Americas before about 40,000 years ago. This opinion was about to change in a major way.
In early 2008, Kathleen and I flew to San Diego to look at the National City collection and met Tom Deméré, Curator of Paleontology, and Richard Cerutti for the first time. They showed us the fractured mastodon bone and the large cobbles that were associated. We could see right away that this was an archaeological site, but the amazing thing was the thick carbonate rinds on the bones and stones that indicated that this site was probably in the range of 100,000 years old.
I was in a state of “scientific shock”, this evidence went against everything I had ever been taught and everything I thought I knew from decades of archaeological experience. What also amazed me was that Richard had done all the background work, refitting rock and bone fragments and mapping all this in great detail. The site had been excavated by Richard and Tom like an archaeological site and everything was well-documented. Now the question became what to do with this site? I knew immediately that I had the knowledge, from the excavation of many mammoth sites with the same type of bone breakage patterns, to assist in the publication of this site. But I also knew that the site was so old and controversial that it would be difficult to get published and that if we did get published, we would be heavily criticized. However, I am a scientist, and I felt an obligation to help publish this site. I also felt a responsibility to Richard Cerutti, who had recognized the archaeological nature of the site and saved the site for science. He was so excited about this research and was such a great person that I just could not disappoint him and walk away from the project. That is what kept me going over the ten years it took to assemble the research team and complete the publication.
Richard spent his entire life exploring, learning, and teaching himself about archaeology and natural history. He had no college degree, but he had a deep knowledge of nature, geology, archaeology, paleontology, flintknapping and human technology that prepared him for the greatest discovery of his life. I thought I knew a lot about early humans in the Americas, but when I met Richard, I soon realized that he knew more about the subject than I did because of this one discovery. We were honored to change the site name to the Cerutti Mastodon Site to honor Richard. Thank you, Richard for teaching me these lessons in such a kind and gentle way. I miss you very much.
Richard, I pledge to you that we will continue the research that you started, and we will keep finding old sites and publishing them in your honor.
Memories of Richard
Ruth Gruhn, Professor Emerita University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada
My late husband Alan Bryan and I met Richard in the early 1990s, when we were checking out reported very early archaeological sites in the San Diego area. In 1994 we carried out an archaeological survey in the Baja California peninsula, leading to two seasons of excavation at Laguna Seca Chapala, a fossiliferous but now-dry lakebed in the central part of the northern state. Richard, whom by then we knew well as a good friend and knowledgeable field archaeologist as well as a paleontologist, came down to visit and assist. He walked with us over an exposed gravel spread, a desert pavement, with an experienced eye, spotting weathered stone artifacts left by the ancient inhabitants.
In the year 2000, we undertook what would be four seasons of excavation at the Abrigo de los Escorpiones, a high rockshelter directly overlooking the shore of the Pacific Ocean, a likely place for very early human habitation. Richard came down to help whenever he could. His home in Harbinson Canyon served as our base in the San Diego area, where we could store our little camp trailer in off-season. It was a great place; and I will never forget the scene as we drove down the canyon after the great wildfire, passing burned out homes and wrecked vehicles, finally to see Richard’s place safely intact: bravely he had stayed through the fire to protect his property and his neighbour’s place with only a garden hose.
Many were the occasions when we stayed in Richard’s home, enjoying the warm hospitality of Richard and his wonderful wife Aida, and admiring the beautiful sand paintings he had made from sediment samples collected on his job. And how much we learned from Richard about the natural history of the area as we travelled with him, while he identified native birds, plants, and animals! Naturalist, paleontologist, experienced field archaeologist and flintknapper, artist; and ever helpful and generous friend. For me, San Diego has become an empty place without him.
Memories of My Father, Richard
I will always have and cherish the wonderful memories of my father. My family and I lived in Spring Valley for about 15 years. I experienced a once in a lifetime childhood. My father always told my sister and I to spend our free time outside the house. He always emphasized that we should not spend our time watching TV. He wanted us to stay outside of the house and appreciate nature. He always wanted us to be creative and find interests that would be fun. We did many things like fishing, camping, riding our bikes, building go-carts.
My father always taught me to keep an eye on the ground because you would never know what you may find. We lived on a dirt street with a lot of hills around us. My friends and I would go exploring the hills behind our house to go have fun.
At our house we had a big garage that was always filled with buckets of rocks. My father collected rocks that were unique. He said these are the rocks that were made by the natives here in San Diego a long time ago. He would always tell me that these buckets of rocks he collected were very important to keep and to study.
My father’s passion was archaeology, and he later turned his hobby of collecting fossils into a career with the San Diego Natural History Museum. He had a collection of fossils that he found throughout San Diego County. He donated all his fossils to the San Diego Natural History Museum where he met Dr. Tom Deméré in the Paleontology Department. Tom was very impressed with my father’s knowledge of fossils and knew that my father would be a great asset to the museum. Tom offered him a job as a Paleontologist and the rest is history.
I remember going on many fossil digs with my father, my family and with other paleontologists from the Natural History Museum. San Diego has so much undiscovered earth and is very rich with natural history. The fossils and natural history here in San Diego, along with the archaeological history was just waiting to be discovered. There were many housing and transportation developments taking place all around San Diego County in the early 80’s and 90’s.
My father dedicated his life to collecting, mapping and categorizing rocks that were used for tools by humans. He always told me that humans have been here much longer than what most mainstream archaeologists want to believe. He told me that most archaeologists do not know how to recognize the percussion fracture on a rock made by a human. Even I as a young boy, I could recognize a tool made by a human that my father had collected when we went out collecting.
My father showed me how a rock is struck with percussion and how to recognize a rock with sharp edges. The rocks were made by the natives here long time ago. He told me that the archaeologists do not know how to recognize rocks made by humans. That is why he collected so many buckets of rocks. My father became an expert on how to strike a rock band a certain way to make a tool and that is how he became an expert flintknapper. My father had many years of experience replicating tools that early Native Americans made.
The Cerutti Mastodon Site is my father’s dream come true: To find an archaeological and paleontological site that proves man was here in North America 115,000 years earlier than thought. I hope that in the future there will be more discoveries like the Cerutti Mastodon.
My father always kept a positive attitude about life and I never once saw him dwell on anything negative, even about his condition when he was diagnosed with cancer. He was extremely confident and had great swag about him.
l miss my father, my friend, and I just want to thank him every day for who I am today. You are always loved, and I still enjoy talking about all the accomplishments you have done in your life, and all of the things you have done for me, for our family, and for others.
Memories of My Father, Richard
Even though you prepared us all for this day, it’s hard to imagine the world without you. You’ve been such an important part of all of our lives. I don’t know where to begin this letter, partly because I’m disappointed that it took me far too long to tell you how important and special you’ve been to me. The word “dad” had always been attributed to negative feelings for me which is why I never addressed you by that word. But the truth is, you were much more than a dad. You were a friend, a mentor, and a selfless example of what it is to be a true father. I was honored to hear you call me your son.
You came into our life at such a critical time that shapes a child’s future. David and I were selfish kids that couldn’t appreciate the effort our mom put forth to provide for us. We had literally ran off any other man that she ever tried to date. And for good reason, they probably hated us. But not you, you held your ground and embraced the chaos that lasted for years. You never just put up with us, you enjoyed having us in your life. You always trusted us, even when trust was probably the last thing we deserved. From the fist fights when mom would pour buckets of water on us to get us to stop fighting, I never understood how such a slender man could be so strong. And even more, how brave a person could be. I remember the times where you would pick up random insects and animals just to show us not to be afraid of nature. I can’t help but mention the time you picked up a snake in the yard and just as you were describing how beautiful it was, it turned its head around and sunk its fangs right into your arm. We were freaking out to see that much blood, but you just stayed calm and removed it with a smile on your face.
You took us camping, fishing, hiking and many other things we had never done before. You got the worst of our rebellion and in return, you gave us the best upbringing we could have had. Thank you for never giving up on this family, especially when this family didn’t reciprocate.
At 18 when I got home from a rehabilitation program, you and mom bought me my first car and welcomed me back into a loving home. At age 19 my son was born, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but your encouragement and support helped me raise a better kid than I ever was. You loved us like your own. You gave us a brother and sister that are equally as kind as you were. And like the 4 of us, your grandchildren were beyond fortunate to have such a beautiful grandfather. You thought of them constantly and always had a gift or adventure in store for them. Such a fun and happy grandfather- truly, of the best ever made.
A man of class, dignity, loyalty and self-respect. The way you loved my mom was beautiful. You adored everything about her. Even her cooking which at times was very questionable. I always admired the way you looked at her. And after 20 years, you still spoke of her with such adoration and gratitude. Shortly before you passed, you told me that because of these 20 years, you would die a happy man.
And like everyone else who knew you, I love the character and sense of humor you always had. You never took yourself too seriously and your humility was always present. Even after your amazing life’s work was finally acknowledged by the world, you remained humble and were mostly excited just to see others excited about nature and science. You still took the time to stop and share a story (or three) with anyone.
You saw the quality and value that exists in everyone and in all living creatures. From the homeless people you would stop and talk with on the street just to lighten up their day, to the ravens you would feed each morning. Always present and concerned for the wellbeing of others. You were a true man of peace by example. You never let fear corrupt your view of humanity and its potential to improve. You chose to live in a world that sees value in its dirt. You have always identified the good in people. No matter the density of any exterior, you always saw the potential of what’s inside. It is not coincidence that your life’s work was discovering the treasures that most walk past. You cared deeply about the world, and thinking back on it now, it all makes sense. You were a gift to this place.
When you got sick, you never complained once. Truly the strongest man I’ve ever known. You firmly, and we all firmly believe that because of my beautiful mom’s nutrition regimens, you exceeded 15 years past the life expectancy that you were given.
So generous and kind. There will never be anyone like you again. But I can say with confidence that a part of you exists in all of us. Even the stray dogs and cats that David and I would bring in off the street, became like family to you and they were given the best life pets could have. Truly selfless even past your last breath. You donated your body to science and wanted your ashes to be spread over Irie, Buffy, Lucus, Nieves and Yoshi’s burial place in order to keep them company.
You’ve always been so encouraging of everything that I did, and I want you to know that the wisdom and advice you gave me over the years, will be stored and cherished in the best parts of who I am. You taught me to be a quality person. A loyal person. And one who values the qualities in others. These are gifts that I get to pass to Vincent and Marley. Your legacy continues. Thank you.
Aida Amar, Richard’s Wife
I would like to share some of the more important things that I learned from my dearest husband and best friend. He had a teacher spirit and loved to share his knowledge and talents. He was an amazing flintknapper and for years taught flintknapping to Native American groups, students of archeology, and to anyone interested in learning. Richard had an incredible knowledge and admiration for Native American culture, and he always wish that his legacy should be shared with the Native Americans of San Diego.
I am not a scientist or an archeologist, but I learned from him what he called to Be in Tune with Nature, something that I experienced before I meet him but not in the sense that Richard experienced.
He not only felt happy around natural spaces, but he was able to tune – in and listen and allow Nature to help him to be present and discover. This connection, I believe was probably the center of his ability to discover things and understand the importance of his findings.
He could be in tune with the mountains, with the rocks, with the stars in the Desert, with the sand and the Ocean; he was able to understand the routines of a tarantula in its survival instincts to distract those mean Hawk Wasps that circle around looking to feed their babies. Richard also had admiration and respect for creatures, believing in the wisdom of the spiders to read the weather, announcing the Santa Ana Winds. He could also listen to the Jack Rabbits and discover their sacred hiding places.
He was also an amazing climber, who learned to climb to the top of Dictionary Hill as a kid with no shoes with his beloved brother Aaron. I witnessed how he was able to jump big rocks speeding with a perfect equilibrium. He also loved painting and was able to develop an amazing technique to create art with sand, having made beautiful sand paintings.
I also learned from Richard’s heart and wisdom; learning that having faith in what you believe should be an important part of your life, regardless the difficulties or how lonely you are in what you believe. He taught me that knowledge is not confined to the universities but to your ability to search, explore and experience.
Richard also taught me that giving to others is a pleasure, the best bond you can have with others, not to be afraid to express yourself with freedom and that sense of humor is a salt of life. We learned together that tolerance and friendship are the main keys for a good marriage, the best attributes to lure and hook your sweetheart forever.
“The task is, not so much to see what no one has yet seen;
but to think what nobody has yet thought,
about that which everyone sees.”
Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961)
For those of you not familiar with Dr. Schrödinger, he was a Nobel Prize winning physicist, a genius by any definition. He was not only a physicist, but he also wrote about philosophy and theoretical biology. He is known for his quantum mechanics thought experiment called “Schrödinger’s cat”. Believe me this subject is too deep for me but look it up if you are interested. Schrödinger was one of the most brilliant scientists of the first half of the 20th century so let us examine the above quote in terms of what it might mean to our search for the earliest Native Americans.
Have we as archaeologists been missing some evidence of the earliest people in the Americas that is hiding in plain sight? I predict that is the case and that within the next five years new evidence that has been previously ignored will be recognized.
Obviously, this discovery will not be made by the status quo archaeologists who are intent on finding the earliest bifacial projectile point associated with a mammoth or some other extinct megafauna that has to be contained in geological deposits less than 16,000 years old (the new Clovis-First Hypothesis plus three thousand years!). Instead, it will be recognized by a group of scientists who think outside the proverbial box to reinterpret evidence that has been around for many decades. Richard Cerutti and others “thought what no one had thought”, but because they were amateur archaeologists they were ignored by the professionals.
Note: We are catching up on newsletters that were interrupted by the Covid pandemic in 2020.