Petaluma’s Serengeti past: Stepping back 18,000 years

Retired senior state archaeologist Breck Parkman journeys into Sonoma County’s natural history, comparing its wildlife with the famous African plain.|

If you had a time machine, where would you go? Paris during the Belle Epoque? Or perhaps New York City during the roaring ‘20s? For retired senior state archaeologist Breck Parkman that answer is a little more wild.

“Imagine walking among saber tooth cats, mammoths, dire wolves and seeing short-faced bears twice the size of grizzlies,” he said. Those are the sights that would greet you here, in Petaluma, he said, 18,000 years ago.

“I’d love to go back for a day to see it, but I sure wouldn’t want to get stuck there,” he joked

Luckily for Parkman, his more than 40 years of experience studying ancient life is like his own periscope into the past, a view that colors his perspective of Petaluma Valley.

He shared these observations and years of scientific discovery with more than 100 participants of a sold-out virtual talk Tuesday evening, hosted by the Sonoma Land Trust, taking audience members to the “California Serengeti.”

The San Francisco Bay region during the late Pleistocene looked nothing like it does today, he said, it was more like the contemporary Serengeti Plain of East Africa.

“We had something here that probably would have knocked our socks off,” Parkman said. “California was a refuge during the Ice Age, its Mediterranean climate wasn’t as brutal here as other parts of the country.”

To the west, where land meets the Pacific Ocean, there was a broad coastal prairie covered with grasses and tree-lined streams. The Farallon Plain stretched from what is now the Monterey Bay north to above Salt Point, Parkman said, and the ocean was once 20 miles away from San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

Petaluma was smack dab in the middle of migratory routes, he said, envisioning long, darkened lines of wild bison and horse, and occasionally mammoth, trundling back and forth from the coast through Petaluma Valley.

For the last 35 years of his career, Parkman worked out of the regional office in Petaluma along Casa Grande Road, next to the Adobe State Historic Park. He can count off a half dozen fossil discoveries made by scientists and ranchers within a few miles of his old office, bountiful evidence of Petaluma’s ancient Serengeti.

“Everybody living in Petaluma, for all they know, there’s a mammoth skeleton buried 10 feet beneath their backyard,” he said.

In 2001, while surveying the Sonoma Coast, the archaeologist stumbled upon uniquely polished rocks about two miles north of Shell Beach. They looked just like ones found in areas where elephants graze, using them to rub up against to clean themselves. The discovery attracted major attention in the scientific community, and formed Parkman’s theory that ancient mammoths and other Ice Age animals were regular visitors to the giant rocks that litter the Sonoma Coast.

“Growing up, reading National Geographic, my dream was to work with the Leakeys in Africa and study these beautiful elephants on the Serengeti,” he said. “What I’ve learned is that the California Serengeti is more than we ever imagined, and those of us who study this say it was probably the most spectacular place in the world for wildlife.”

In our present-day reality, with the threats from climate change and scientists speculating that we’re in the middle of the sixth great mass extinction, Parkman says it’s more important than ever for people to learn about natural history.

“By talking about the Serengeti Plain of the past, I think we can start thinking about the future as well,” he said.

A recording of the presentation is available on Sonoma Land Trust’s YouTube page.

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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