National Lecture Program

AIA Lecturer: Todd J. Braje

Affiliation: San Diego State University

Todd Braje is Professor of Anthropology with San Diego State University, and he holds his degrees from the University of Oregon (Ph.D.), the University of Florida, and Beloit College.  His extensive research interests and geographic expertise include the archaeology of maritime societies, the historical ecology of marine ecosystems, complex hunter/gatherer/fisher studies, Pacific coast archaeology and coastal adaptations, and the peopling of the Americas.  He is a California Academy of Sciences Research Associate, Co-Editor of the Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology, a Smithsonian Research Associate, and an Editorial Board Member of both California Archaeology and Sustainability.  Professor Braje has published widely, and received many accolades for his work.


In the midst of the California Gold Rush, a small group of enterprising Chinese immigrants recognized untapped resources along the Pacific Coast. Freed from both human and sea otter predation for decades, coastal California was teeming with abalone stocks and commercial fishing of several species rose to become a multimillion dollar industry. By the late twentieth century, however, overfishing, disease, and mismanagement combined to end all commercial abalone fishing along North America’s Pacific Coast and drive several species to the brink of extinction. The culmination of over a decade of field, archival, and laboratory work, this talk explores the history of Chinese abalone fishing in southern California, using the Northern Channel Islands as a case study. It is not, however, a tertiary story of nineteenth-century California. It is an analogy for the broader history of Chinese immigrants in America—their struggles, their successes, the institutionalized racism they faced, and the unique ways in which they shaped the identity of our nation. It is also a microcosm for our world’s fisheries. The story of ecological dysfunction, overharvesting, and eventual collapse is one that can be told with countless species worldwide. The crisis facing Pacific Coast abalone parallels the collapse of many of the most important and productive fisheries around the world. The key to avoiding future crises and restoring our degraded marine ecosystems may be by looking to the past.

Little more than two decades ago, most archaeologists believed they knew when and how the Americas were first settled. Archaeological discoveries in southern Chile and a variety of early sites throughout the American West have fundamentally changed everything we thought we knew about the first human migrants to the New World. Today, there are more questions than answers about the origins of the First Americans, a situation that has stimulated new ideas and reinvigorated theories once considered marginal. Answers might be found along our Pacific shorelines, where the floral and faunal giants of California such as kelp forests and sea mammals may have facilitated the peopling of the Americas. Research being conducted at San Diego State University is attempting to answer these questions by looking under the sea, in the largest scientific effort ever undertaken to identify submerged archaeological sites along California’s Pacific Coast.

Earth’s ecosystems are rapidly changing, driven largely by human activities such as the overexploitation of wildlife, habitat degradation, and anthropogenic climate change. The human footprint is so substantial that many scientists argue that we now live in the Anthropocene, a new geologic epoch of our own making. To help understand the modern world and confront our environmental challenges, researchers need new theoretical, methodological, and interdisciplinary approaches in the sciences. Archaeology and historical ecology are rapidly becoming key disciplinary players by providing deep historical information on the relative abundances of flora and fauna, changes in biogeography, alterations in food webs, and much more. Recent research on California’s Channel Islands, in particular, offers new perspectives on human-environmental ecodynamics in marine and terrestrial ecosystems and demonstrates that perspectives from deep history will be key in helping us better understand the modern world and confront the challenges of the Anthropocene. Today, more than ever, the past will be key in helping us build a more sustainable future.

support Us

The AIA is North America's largest and oldest nonprofit organization dedicated to archaeology. The Institute advances awareness, education, fieldwork, preservation, publication, and research of archaeological sites and cultural heritage throughout the world. Your contribution makes a difference.