• Stephanie Maher

The Archaeology of the Torqua Cave

Updated: Nov 15

Previous Blog: Insight into the Mysterious Article Part 2: The riveting possibility of buried treasure


Main Page: The Secret of the Torqua Cave



Something significant happened within the Torqua Cave!


Disclaimer: It is forbidden to disturb sensitive sites like the Torqua Cave. If you must visit the site, I highly insist that you approach the rock shelter with humble respect and do not vandalize, destroy, dig, or litter within the parameters of this site. It would be devastating to the Gabrielino/Tongva if the Torqua Cave is disturbed because it is their cultural heritage that connects them to Catalina Island.




The Torqua Cave is a special, and a unique rock art site because it contains the most pictographs of any other archaeological site on the Channel Islands. The Torqua Cave is suggested to be a sacred point, a boundary between portals to the spiritual realms because of the peculiar red pictographs.[1] The rock shelter is unusual because it is documented as shamanic place of power,[2] and yet shell middens and signs of cooking have been identified within and around the site[3]. Shamanic places of power are usually not associated with cooking. It is because of this peculiarity that makes the Toqua Cave so special and significant.


The Pimu'gnans believed that places of power heal the sick, or kill your enemies or create a balance within a particular environment [4]. I am suggesting that something significant had to have happened that transition the Torqua Cave from being a place of daily rituals, to a place of power.


The Torqua Cave is in fact a rock shelter because it is a shallow cave-like opening and is situated directly on the border of a thrust fault between blueschist on the lower plate and greenschist above. The rock shelter is part of a prominent rock outcropping that looks like huge spires. It is located about a mile from Ben Weston beach toward Middle Ranch.






The rock shelter is 24 meters long and ranges between 4 - 8 meters tall, orientated northwest to southeast with the overhang angling at about 45 – 60 degrees and has a level platform beneath the overhang of rock that extends several meters before the steep slope drops to the southwest.[5] You will see dozens of red images that range in size from 4 to 50 cm [6] . The prominent pictographs include a sun burst, aquatic motifs, humanoid figures.






In February 1973, the Torqua Cave had been formally excavated by Nelson Leonard III of University of California Riverside, and his undergraduate students as a research project to study the subsistence customs of the occupants[7]. The Riverside team created four archaeological units, each roughly 3 ft. by 6 ft. within the vicinity of the rock shelter to a maximum depth of 6ft. Although the project was to analyze the faunal remains within the shell middens, or waste piles, they uncovered at a minimum of four individuals [8], presumed to be Native American.







Dating was not established for the site. There is a the lack of provenience information associated with this collection, which means there is little information to refer to the three-dimensional location within the archaeological units that the remains were found within. This may because students were involved in this excavation. However, it seems odd that the archaeologists will not carbon date this important area just because they cannot refer to the strata location the specimens were found in. The Riverside Team’s archaeofuanal collection weighs in at 2,082.51g [9], which is a little over 4 and a half pounds! More than enough specimens to carbon date that area.


Age or sex could not be identified from the recovered human skeletal remains. It is nearly impossible to tell the race of an individual just based on fragmented skeletal remains. Unless we can figure out what three-dimensional location these remains were found within the archaeological units, analyze and carbon date the human remains, we can not presume the remains are of any origin.


The only description of the human remains found in the Torqua Cave is in the Notice of Inventory Completion: Catalina Island Museum, Avalon, CA. This public government document is easily found on the internet and gives the details and locations of all the burials uncovered on Santa Catalina from the 1950's – to the late 1970's. The description of the remains found within the Torqua Cave is very vague. All it says is that “two of which are adults and one sub-adult. Sex of these human remains could not be determined. The fourth set of human remains was not distinguishable to age or sex.”[10]


The human fragments found within faunal remains and the burial strongly suggests that a shamanistic ritual could have taken place within the Torqua Cave. It is known that the Tongva ritualistically ate part of their relatives when they became deceased to ingest their essence[11].

Like I said something significant had to have happened for a the Torqua Cave to have been turned into a place of ritual if it was originally intended to prepare and cook food


Other than the human and faunal remains, there is little information given as to the types of artifacts that were found by the Riverside team in the Inventory of Completion of the Catalina Island Museum. However, Dr. Judith F. Porcasi explains in her paper, A “Cold Case” Archaeofauna from Torqua Cave (CA-SCAI-32), Santa Catalina, that the Riverside team collected deer bone that looked like it could have been worked into a tool. Porcasi uses this as an example to explain that deer was not part of the island diet [12]. Porcasi published this paper in 2013, which gives details about the faunal remains extracted in 1973 by the Riverside team. Since the Riverside team never followed through on the study of the faunal remains, Porcasi wanted to continue their research and assess the subsistence customs of the occupants of the site[13].

Porcasi summarizes that “the dietary remains at Torqua Cave suggest that this was a residential setting to which marine foods were transported from the shoreline sites,” and that "the Torqua Cave may be linked to the Little Harbor site (CA-SCAI-17) ..." and also mentions that the rock art within the Torqua Cave suggests there may have been a ritual context as well.[14] Porcasi also wrote various articles about the archaeofuanal collections of Catalina. She is a zooarchaeologist at the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology and an independent consultant on archaeofuanal collections. Her principal interest is Terminal Pleistocene/Early Holocene adaptations to maritime settings.


Based on Porcasi’s paper, the Riverside team collected substantial quantities of marine mammals, especially small cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises). [15] Porcasi theorizes that the Torqua Cave may have been connected to the Little Harbor Site (CA-SCAI-17) based upon her analysis of the faunal remains that were found between the two sites. [16] This suggests that the Torqua Cave may have been occupied at about the same time span as the Little Harbor site. Porcasi states that the “Torqua Cave is linked to the Harbor site because of its proximity and the similarity of vertebrate faunal remains found within the site" and theorizes that “Torqua Cave cetaceans were captured and butchered at Little Harbor before being taken to the Torqua Cave." [17]


If this is true, then it seems possible that the Pimugnans living at Little Harbor and around the Torqua Cave could witnessed and interacted with the Spanish from the two fleeing Galleons described in the article Spanish Gold Lures Them when the Spanish had buried part of the treasure inside the Torqua Cave. Glass trade beads have been found at the Little Harbor site to support this statement. Around Little Harbor could be a possible location where the Spanish could have buried the rest of their treasure, along with Cotton wood beach since those are the two closest inlets suitable for anchorage next to Ben Weston Beach.





Interestingly, Porcasi mentions at the end of her analysis that historical components had been found within the Torqua Cave by the Riverside team: "...a small quantity of goat, pig, and chukar bones and historic artifacts such as a carved bone button." [18] As I have stated, no dates have been determined for the Torqua Cave.


I am assuming that the unsubstantial provenience information is the reasoning as to why this site is not dated, although there may be a deeper reason as to why no dates were determined for the site. That reason is up for speculation. What is obvious is that something significant happened within and around the Torqua Cave.





Dr. Clement Meighan (1925-1997), one of the leading researchers of rock art in Southern California and professor of anthropology at UCLA, summarizes the most important rock art pictographs, petroglyphs, cupule sites and quarries found within the Channel Islands in his paper entitled “Rock Art on the Channel Islands of California,”[19] In this paper he describes the pictographs found within the Torqua Cave, emphasizing their similarity to other Chumash styles found within the mainland. He identifies 19 identifiable elements including a prominent “Sun disk.” Meighan included a drawing of the “Sun Disk” in his paper along with other examples of what the pictographs looked like. Meighan concludes in his paper that the Torqua Cave “appears to be the most complex rock art site on all the islands.”



In his paper Meighan also presents an outstanding picture of the “Cave of Whales” located on San Nicholas Island, another island inhabited by the Pimu’gnans. The “Cave of Whales” contains rare petroglyphs of what looks to be “killer whales, dolphins, or porpoises.” Meighan states that “Whatever their identification, fish forms are rare in California rock art, and there is no other site with a predominance of such representations.”


The Cave of Whales and the Torqua Cave “stand out because of there quantity, diversity, and symbolic nature of their images; however... other sites appear to be equally significant based on the duration of occupation, artifact diversity, and other features, such as Jones’ Cave (SRI-147) on Santa Rosa Island.” [20]


In 2016 “Documentation and Technical Study of Torqua Cave,” published by Thomas McClintock, formally analyzed the pictographs of the rock shelter using image enhancing technology and discovered a total of 60 pictographs as compared to the 19 that Meighan and Nelson had observed.






Thomas participated in the last archaeological Pimu Catalina Archaeological Field School as a graduate researcher in 2014 where he first began to study the Torqua Cave. He is now working for the Bradshaw foundation as a “a multidisciplinary conservator trained in a variety of studio art materials as well as the preservation of cultural heritage sites. He received his master’s degree from the UCLA / Getty Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials program in 2016, where he specialized in the preservation of rock art sites, his primary professional interest.”[21]



In his paper he included visuals of the pictographs that he had enhanced using D-stretch, an image enhancement technique that assisted in the revelation of roughly 60 previously unrecognized images and markings. The site was also monitored for five months to study the temperature and humidity within the site to predict the rate of decay of the pictographs to better help understand ways to preserve the site.




In his paper he notes that among the many archaeological sites on Santa Catalina Island, three are known to contain pictographs and two which feature petroglyphs. He suggests that "Santa Catalina Island has a significantly higher density of rock art locations and Torqua Cave is the most extensive of these, featuring dozens of red pictographs and a dense archaeological midden." [22] Cindi Alvitri strongly suggests that the "Torqua Cave and other rock art locations of the Southern Channel Islands is evidence of their ancestors’ presence and continue to connect with them as places of power." [23]





This is suggested because of “A Rare Account of Gabrielino/Tongva Shamanism" from the notes of John P. Harrington, which describes a Gabrielino/Tongva Chief living within San Gabriel mission that told the story of shamans, two men and boy performing rituals on the west wide of Santa Catalina, that had made the people of the San Gabriel mission sick.[24] The Gabrielino Chief of San Gabriel traveled to Santa Catalina with others and killed the two men and the boy. It is interesting that within the Torqua Cave, two adults and one subadult has been identified, as if giving emphasis to the truth of this rare account.

The Torqua Cave’s peculiar rock art within a habitation site is the overlap of Archaeological correlates that makes the Torqua Cave stand out, which brings me to the conclusion that something significant had to have happened within the Torqua Cave. According to the article Spanish Gold Lures Them, the Pimu’gnans witnessed and helped the Spanish bury treasure inside and nearby the Torqua Cave. It is possible that the Pimu’gnans viewed the visitation of the Spanish as a superior event that continued to be commemorated through their shamanic ritual practices.


Is there somewhere in history that Pimu'gnan Shamans speak of treasure buried on the west side of Santa Catalina Island? The answer is yes!







Stay tuned for upcoming blog about the Pimu'gnan Shamans and their legend of buried treasure on Santa Catalina Island!


Up Next: Sam Prentiss Legend of Buried Treasure on Santa Catalina Island, CA


Previous Blog: Insight into the Mysterious Article Part 2: The riveting possibility of buried treasure


Main Page: The Secret of the Torqua Cave


#treasure #TorquaCave #SantaCatalina




[1] Perry, Jennifer, The Archaeology of Ritual on the Channel Islands, California's Channel Islands, Jazwa, Christopher S., Perry, Jennifer E., The Archaeology of Human-Environment Interactions, The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 2013, page148 [2] McClintock, Thomas, Documentation and Technical Study of Torqua Cave (escholarship.org) 2016 (Hudson 1979, Alvitre 2015) [3] Porcasi, Judith F., A "Cold Case" Archaeofauna from Torqua Cave (CA-SCAI-32), Santa Catalina Island Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly, 2014. [4] Perry, Jennifer, The Archaeology of Ritual on the Channel Islands, California's Channel Islands, Jazwa, Christopher S., Perry, Jennifer E., The Archaeology of Human-Environment Interactions, The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 2013, page137 [5] McClintock, Thomas, Documentation and Technical Study of Torqua Cave (escholarship.org) 2016. [6] McClintock, Thomas, Documentation and Technical Study of Torqua Cave (escholarship.org) 2016.

[7] Porcasi, Judith, F., A Cold Case Archaeofauna from Torqua Cave (CA-SCAI-32), Santa Catalina Island, Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly, 2014. [8] Notice of Inventory Completion: Catalina Island Museum, Avalon, CA. National Park Service Agency. 2016. [9] Porcasi, Judith F., A "Cold Case" Archaeofauna from Torqua Cave (CA-SCAI-32), Santa Catalina Island, 2014. Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly, 2014

[10] The Notice of Inventory Completion: Catalina Island Museum, Avalon, CA.

[11] Bean, Lowell J., Smith, Charles R., Gabrielino, Handbook of North Amrican Indians, Smithsonian Institution, 1978, p.545

[12] Porcasi, Judith F., A "Cold Case" Archaeofauna from Torqua Cave (CA-SCAI-32), Santa Catalina Island, Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly, 2014. [13] Porcasi, Judith F., A "Cold Case" Archaeofauna from Torqua Cave (CA-SCAI-32), Santa Catalina Island, Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly, 2014.

[14] Porcasi, Judith, F., A Cold Case Archaeofauna from Torqua Cave (CA-SCAI-32), Santa Catalina Island, Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly, 2014.

[15] Porcasi, Judith, F., A Cold Case Archaeofauna from Torqua Cave (CA-SCAI-32), Santa Catalina Island, Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly, 2014.

[16] Porcasi, Judith, F., A Cold Case Archaeofauna from Torqua Cave (CA-SCAI-32), Santa Catalina Island, Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly, 2014.

[17] Porcasi, Judith, F., A Cold Case Archaeofauna from Torqua Cave (CA-SCAI-32), Santa Catalina Island, Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly, 2014.

[18] Porcasi, Judith, F., A Cold Case Archaeofauna from Torqua Cave (CA-SCAI-32), Santa Catalina Island, Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly, 2014.

[19] Meighan, Clement, W., Rock Art on the Channel Islands of California, Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly, Volume 36, Number 2, Spring 2000.

[20] Perry, Jennifer, The Archaeology of Ritual on the Channel Islands, California's Channel Islands, Jazwa, Christopher S., Perry, Jennifer E., The Archaeology of Human-Environment Interactions, The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 2013, page146.

[21] Rock Art Network - Tom McClintock (bradshawfoundation.com)

[22] McClintock, Thomas, Documentation and Technical Study of Torqua Cave (escholarship.org) 2016.

[23] McClintock, Thomas, Documentation and Technical Study of Torqua Cave (escholarship.org) 2016 (Alvitre, Cindi, personal communication, 2015)

[24] Hudson, Travis, A Rare Account of Gabrielino Shamanism from the Notes of John P. Harrington, Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology,1979, Vol. 1, No. 2, page 356-362

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