Dr. John Johnson

Dr. John Johnson

“I was curious.”

Dr. John Johnson began his career as an archaeologist working for the U.S. Forest Service, doing surveys in the hills and canyons of the Santa Barbara backcountry. It was while doing this work that he came across ancient sites—ceremonial areas, rock art sites, and abandoned villages. “I wondered, who lived here?” This question has been the key to unlocking many of the doors that have been opened by this anthropologist over four decades. 

Dr. Johnson is Curator of Anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and an adjunct professor at UC Santa Barbara. His research on mission records and DNA connects some of the Central Coast’s earliest inhabitants with their living descents. In other words, our living, contemporary Chumash Indians have scientific evidence that connects them to their great, great grandparents and beyond, through marital or baptismal records found in the Mission, or DNA tests that link them to inhabitants who lived here over 5,000 years ago.

Not only is Dr. Johnson the foremost scholar working on this subject, he is also a pioneer in bringing together evidence from historical records, ethnographic research, DNA studies, and archaeology to help bridge these connections, and provide a richer understanding of the history and prehistory of our region. His work helps to makes our early history come alive. It’s as if the old evidence was presented as black and white illustration and now we get to see the evidence in full color animation!

He is highly regarded as a generous scholar; he is gregarious and freely shares his insights gained from a lifetime of research with colleagues. As head of the anthropology staff at the museum, with Drs. Jan Timbrook and Ray Corbett, he is also responsible for curation of ethnographic documents and artifacts as well as disseminating the results of his research in scientific publications and to public audiences.

Early Years

His earliest experiences in archaeology had long-lasting results. “While I was a freshman at Corona del Mar High School, I was invited on an archaeological field trip to Santa Catalina Island, supervised by Paul Chase; we excavated a shell midden at Little Harbor.” While still in high school, he worked as an archaeological field assistant for three summers at a scout ranch in New Mexico, supervised by then grad student Michael Glassow, a prominent archaeologist and now a distinguished emeritus professor at UC Santa Barbara. “Mike was my mentor.”

John attended Occidental College and then transferred to UC Santa Barbara, earning a degree in cultural anthropology. “I thought I’d like to go into teaching. I also became interested in yoga.” Yoga continues to be a part of his daily routine, which you can see in the video portion of John’s portrait. For John, his yoga practice is not just a way to keep fit, it is also a vital part of keeping equanimity. “It helps me to be better at what I do.”

“I later worked at Cottage Hospital as a physical therapy aide. I held my wife’s job while she went to UCSF to continue her education in physical therapy.” When she returned, John took a job as a Forest Service firefighter. “After the season, the forest service kept me on to do an archaeological field survey in the Santa Barbara back country.”


Chumash Genealogy

He went on to graduate school and focused on studying the Chumash. “I was aware of the mission records, with names of the families that lived in villages here. Families that lived here as recently as 200 years ago; only four or five generations ago.” He wondered, “Who are the living descendents of the people who lived in these places?” John has been working on that question ever since.

“These places [in the backcountry] where people once lived; they are still like they were except they are empty now. You can imagine what it was like, ceremonial areas, rock painting sites, where rituals were conducted or stories were told. It transports you back in time when you see something like that.”

“For my doctoral dissertation, I studied Chumash social organization. In marriage, the man would move to live with his wife’s relatives. That’s unusual. I studied 40 [Chumash] towns with this matrilocal residence pattern. There’s also a clue to how [some] marriages were arranged by looking at the families of chiefs. Children of the chief tended to marry other chiefs from Rincon to Point Conception; marrying into the political leadership of the next town.”

 Native American DNA

Johnson’s DNA studies link archaeological evidence with living people today and indicate that the Chumash have lived in this region for millennia. “There is a rare type of mitochondrial DNA that is only found among 2% of living Indians in North and South America. Almost 25% of surviving Chumash lineages belongs to this type. It is also one of the earliest found all along the western margin of the Americas. This rare DNA indicates an ancient coastal migration from Berengia to Tierra del Fuego.”  This is a game changer…helping us to better understand how man migrated from Asia to the Americas.

In conducting DNA research with study participants, Dr. Johnson is often asked questions about possible tribal affiliations and identity. Questions about DNA are not only important in terms of ancient migrations and settlement patterns but also bear on questions that people have about their more recent family histories. Johnson is careful to remind us that identity is more than just a person’s genetics. He is truly connected to the Chumash community and advocates and supports their commitment to keeping their culture alive and thriving today.  His heart and work are connected to the living Chumash as well as to understanding their past.

Arlington Man- Oldest Human Man in North America

“One thing that I never expected is that I would work at Arlington Springs.” This is the site of the famous Arlington Man find, discovered on Santa Rosa Island by anthropologist Phil Orr, in 1959. Found eroding out of the side of the canyon at a location nearly 40 feet below the surface, the Arlington remains were immediately recognized as ancient, and raised a fundamental question, “How old is it?” At the time, it was relatively dated to the end of the Pleistocene, about 10,000 years ago.

Dr. Johnson was invited to excavate the Arlington site in the early 2000s. With a team of experts and using modern dating techniques, the site was dated to over 13,000 years, confirming that is was among the earliest sites in North America. “Working with Tom Stafford we obtained funding to date the geological layers. “We are learning what the environment was like and how it changed over time. Anthropology is valuable; it lets us know that our way of doing things isn’t the only way. Archaeology gives us thousands of years of looking at how cultures change as well as helping us to look at major environmental changes that people had to deal with. These changes may happen again.” These include such changes as long-term drought and changing availability of resources. “We can learn how people dealt with changes.”

 Was Arlington Man an ancestor of the Chumash? “We don’t know for sure. Maybe future studies will determine this. We do have ancient DNA evidence that tells us the Chumash were here at least 5,000 years ago, and probably much, much earlier.”

Asked about his own family history, John shares that his parents were teachers and also interested in natural history; his father was a lepidopterist (the study of butterflies and moths) and taught biology. John and his wife, Mary, also instilled a love of nature in their own, now adult children, through hiking and camping trips exploring nature. He quotes a favorite motto of the museum’s education department, “Leave no child indoors.”

 To learn more about the natural and cultural history of our region, you may wish to visitsbmnh.org.

By Katherine Bradford