Using targeted survey, excavation, and radiocarbon dating, we assess the extent to which human settlement patterns on California’s northern Channel Islands fit predictions arising from the ideal free distribution (IFD): (1) people first established and expanded permanent settlements in the regions ranked high for environmental resource suitability; (2) as population grew, they settled in progressively lower ranked habitats; and (3) changes in the archaeological record associated with high population levels such as increases in faunal diversity and evenness in high-ranked habitats are coincident with the expansion to other areas. On Santa Rosa Island, the early permanent settlements were located in both high- and middle-ranked locations, with the most extensive settlement at the highest ranked locations and only isolated sites elsewhere. Settlement at a low-ranked habitat was confined to the late Holocene (after 3600 cal BP). Drought influenced the relative rank of different locations, which is an example of climate adding a temporal dimension to the model that episodically stimulated population movement and habitat abandonment. Because the IFD includes a wide range of cultural and environmental variables, it has the potential to be a central model for guiding archaeological analysis and targeted field research.
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