Poison Oak to Guard Ancient Indian Burial Grounds

Photo: Franco Folini / cc

For thousands of years, the Curse of the pharaohs guarded the gilded tombs of Egypt from grave-robbers -- but a trip to the British Museum proves that that didn't go over too well. So, with hocus-pocus clearly off the table, authorities charged with protecting an ancient indian burial grounds in California turned to something they hope will be even more effective at keeping away would-be looters: poison oak.In Yuba County, along the Feather River in Northern California, officials from the levee improvement authority, working with local tribes, have employed a novel method of protecting centuries-old indian burial sites placed in their care on a recently widened floodway -- and it's made for a strange sight indeed. Most of the time, people would go to great lengths to avoid even getting near poison oak, but authorities in the area have taken to planting the stuff, all in hopes of making a natural deterrent for anyone thinking of disturbing the ancient graveyards.

The thinking is that poison oak, unlike fences topped with razor-wire, would blend into the natural environment, all while concealing and protecting the archeological sites. After all, who would risk the itchy rash and blisters caused by contact with poison oak? Only the region's native species -- not grave-robbers, says the Sacramento Bee.

An old identification rhyme for poison oak - Toxicodendron diversilobum - suggests, "leaves of three, let it be." The authorities hope the plant's noxious reputation will lead those inclined to raid the archaeological site to "let it be."

American Indian sites - and even information about their whereabouts - are strictly controlled by federal and state laws that oblige their protection.

Using poison oak is unusual, but not unheard of.

"We use it very rarely," said Nikki Polson, an archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "Usually it comes out of consultation with the Native American tribes."

Estom Yumeka Maidu tribespeople, Native Americans residing in Northern California, are thought to be the likely decedents of that ancient group buried near the Feather River. Such burial grounds, dating back hundreds of years, are considered sacred by indians and protected by both federal and state law. Still, that hasn't stopped looters from robbing the sites of their ancient artifacts -- but fortunately, the itch of poison oak is undiscriminating.

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Tags: California | Conservation

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