If Gary Stickel cuts a familiar figure with his wide-brimmed hat, dirty bomber jacket and mud-slathered boots, it is for good reason. His blend of erudition, shyness, dry humour and egotism were the inspiration for Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark—down to Jones’s inability to spell “Neolithic”.
The real-life archaeologist hasn’t enjoyed the success of his celluloid alter ego, who earned $1.2 billion (£615 million) at the box office. At 62, Dr Stickel lives alone, is divorced, estranged from his daughter, and recovering from gout. “As far as archaeologists go, I think I’ve actually got a good personality,” he jokes.
Now he is about to initiate a blockbuster clash with some of Hollywood’s most redoubtable figures: the residents of Malibu. It’s exactly what you would expect of Indiana Jones—fighting to preserve an 11,000-year-old archaeological site on Point Dume, off the Pacific Coast Highway, which he says could hold the DNA answer to whether the first human beings in America were Asian or European.
Dr Stickel says it is the first site of its kind discovered on the 20,000 mile coastline from Alaska to Chile, but Malibu has no law to protect such sites. And the owner of the land is building a Mediterranean-style villa on her clifftop, valued at about $4 million. Dr Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution says the land is “nationally significant” and must be investigated.
“What’s happening here is barbaric,” says Dr Stickel, standing outside the barricades around the site. “Our history is important. And if it’s not important to her [the landowner], it’s important to many Americans, and other people.”
The owner is not a celebrity, but The Times has agreed not to publish the site’s location because of the risk of looting.
Dr Stickel’s struggle—Indiana Jones and the Mansion of Doom, as Hollywood might put it—began six years ago when the lot was bought for development. Under Malibu’s building code all sites must be surveyed for historical artefacts.
In 2005 Edgar Perez, a Native American, was helping to monitor the work, sifting through the dirt. “I was over there by that tree,” says Dr Stickel, “and Edgar starts yelling at me, ‘You’ve gotta see this’. He was holding up this thing, this speartip, and I said, ‘Oh my God’.”
The speartip was found to be up to 11,000 years old and distinctive “fluted flakes” on its base suggested that it belonged to the Clovis culture, named for the New Mexico site where the first such artefact was discovered in 1932. The culture is the subject of intense debate between archaeologists and Native Americans. Dr Stanford argues that because no speartips—known as Clovis Points—have been found in Siberia, from where the first Americans were supposed to have arrived, they must have come from the East Coast, via ice sheets linked with Europe, where there is a trail of Clovis discoveries. “They were from Iberia, not Siberia,” he once said of these settlers, who arrived 15,000 years before Columbus.
Native Americans are outraged at the idea that they might be related to those who infected them with smallpox and stole their land. Dr Stickel argues that any human remains could put an end to this debate with DNA evidence.
The owner of the land said: “I have followed all of the guide-lines, I have worked to preserve the integrity of the site, I have spent the money to comply (estimated at $100,000). Now I want to move into my house.”
Parts of the house have been built to allow future excavation, but Dr Stickel said that only 1 per cent of the settlement had been investigated.
He plans a press conference in Los Angeles, in the unlikely hope that public pressure will force something to happen. “This little thing here,” he says, holding up a relic of the Clovis speartip. “It’s my heaven, and her hell.”