On Desert Shores

Archaeology and History of the Western Midriff Islands in the Gulf of California

Hot, arid, and uninhabited, the western Midriff Islands lie in the Gulf of California, surrounded by an often-treacherous sea. Given these conditions, why would ancient people go there, and why would anybody go there today? Thomas Bowen addresses these questions in the first comprehensive history of these islands.

Bowen draws on a wide range of sources, including the first archaeological field work ever conducted on the islands, written accounts dating back to the sixteenth century, oral histories of native people, contemporary interviews, and his own firsthand experiences. Among those cast in the islands’ historical drama are the Seri (Comcaac) people of Sonora, the extinct Cochimís of Baja California, Spanish explorers, Jesuit missionaries, pearl fishers, egg collectors, guano miners, hydrographers, cartographers, small-scale Mexican fishermen, recreational anglers, writers, photographers, ecotourists, shipwreck victims, and, most importantly, scientists. The final chapter documents the impact of this human activity on the islands’ ecosystems and examines conservation efforts now underway. Compelling and richly illustrated, this broadly based work provides a unique picture of these extraordinary islands.

Online Appendices A–E

Thomas Bowen is emeritus professor at California State University, Fresno, and a research associate with the Southwest Center at the University of Arizona. His publications include Unknown Island (2000), The Record of Native People on Gulf of California Islands (2009), and Journal of a Voyage (2018), a translation of Federico Craveri’s account of his 1856 voyage in the Gulf.

Table of Contents:


List of Maps and Tables
About This Book
Preface: Why Go There?

Introduction. An Inventory of Cultural Resources
How It Began
Getting There
Finding Sites
Recording Sites

Part I. Setting the Stage

1. A Tour of the Islands
The San Lorenzo Archipelago
Isla Ángel de la Guarda
Satellite Islands of Isla Ángel de la Guarda
The Outlying Islands

Part II. The Archaeological Legacy

2. The Record of Native People

3. The Record of Modern People

4. Finding Water
The San Lorenzo Archipelago
Isla Ángel de la Guarda

5. Loose Ends and Missing Pieces
Camps and Resources of the San Lorenzo Archipelago 
Camps and Resources of Isla Ángel de la Guarda
The Obsidian Puzzle
The Agave Puzzle
Missing Seafood
Where’s the Fire?
Where Are the Dead?

6. Threats and Conservation
Natural Forces
Human Factors
Case Histories
Potential Threats

Part III. The Historical Legacy

7. The Original Islanders
The Archaeological Record
The Documentary Record
Seri Oral History

8. Enter the Europeans
The First Explorers (1539–1768)
After the Jesuits (1768–1900)
The Twentieth Century and Beyond (1900–2021)

9. Altering the Biosphere
Redistributing Native Species
Introducing Non-Native Species
Confronting the Future
Prospects for the Islands

References Cited

Praise and Reviews:

“Bowen’s excitement for good science and hard data, field adventure, and wide-ranging conservation brings it all together through his splendid storytelling and narrative, all backed by his careful field journals. And it is all quite infectious.”
—Daniel W. Anderson, professor emeritus, Department of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology, University of California, Davis 

“From the very first pages, Bowen vividly paints a picture of this remote region of extreme beauty and isolation. Without recourse to equations or highly abstracted models, he deftly situates both the writing and the research behind it within robust bodies of cultural, natural, and historical theory. This work is of high importance in terms of both sheer volume and range of information about an understudied, underreported, and underrecognized region of North America.”
—Matthew Des Lauriers, Department of Anthropology, California State University, San Bernardino