CALIFORNIA'S NATIVE PEOPLE

BEFORE EUROPEAN COLONIZATION


Everything was water except a very small piece of ground. On this were the eagle and the coyote. Then the turtle swam to them. They sent it to dive for the earth at the bottom of the water. The turtle barely succeeded in reaching the bottom and touching it with its foot. When it came up again, all the earth seemed washed out. Coyote looked closely at its nails. At last he found a grain of earth. Then he and the eagle took this and laid it down. From it they made the earth as large as it is. From the earth they also made six men and six women. They sent these out in pairs in different directions and the people separated. After a time the eagle sent the coyote to see what the people were doing. Coyote came back and said: "They are doing something bad. They are eating the earth. One side is already gone." The eagle said: " That is bad. Let us make something for them to eat. Let us send the dove to find something." The dove went out. It found a single grain of meal. The eagle and coyote put this down on the ground. Then the earth became covered with seeds and fruit. Now they told the people to eat these. When the seeds were dry and ripe the people gathered them. Then the people increased and spread all over. But the water is still under the world.

 

 


All humans are interested in their origins and they try to account for their existence through legends, such as the Yaudanchi Yokut one quoted above. Such stories are about the actions and deeds of "power" in the past. They commonly explain how people came to live where they do, how they acquired tools and customs, and why one should act, or not act, in certain ways. Most commonly the contain fundamental conceptions of nature and society about how people out to relate to the world and to one another.

Anthropologists also have creation stories, though they differ markedly from those of the aboriginal peoples of California when it comes to explaining how the California Indians came to be. It's not a better story, just a different one. The "short," and more traditional, version (the longer one comes later) goes something like this.

The first migrants into the Americas came from Northeast Asia, entering what is now northwestern Alaska and then spreading southward. Exactly when this happened has been hotly debated. Until relatively recently the majority of scholars believed that the first human populations entered the Americas about 11,000 - 11,500 years ago. At that time low sea levels had exposed a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, where the Bering Strait now lies. As the story goes, these "First Americans" trekked across the Bering Land Bridge, then rapidly spread southward, fanning out across the Great Plains of southern Canada and the United States, then spreading eastward, westward, southward, and eventually reaching South America no later than about 11,000 years ago.

In North America, the best known of these First Americans are the so-called Clovis people, who appear somewhat abruptly on the scene around 11,000-11,500 years ago, seemingly without any antecedents, but giving rise, so the traditional story goes, to all later populations of Native Americans. Peoples of the Clovis tradition subsisted off big-game, smaller animals and some wild vegetable foods, lived in open, temperate habitats, camping along rivers and streams and other places where large game animals came to feed and obtain water. But it would be a mistake to think of the Clovis people as merely big-game hunters. Undoubtedly they also hunted both medium- and small-sized animals as well as exploiting wild plant foods. Then, around 10,900 years ago, they abruptly vanished from the archaeological record, replaced by a myriad of different local hunter-gatherer cultures. Why this happened no one knows but their disappearnce coincides with the mass extinction of Ice Age big-game animals, leading to speculation that Clovis people either overhunted these mammals and drove them into extinction or over-hunting eliminated a "keystone species" (usually the mammoths or mastodon) and this led to environmental collapse and a more general extinction.

Sometime between 12,000 and 11,000 years ago, people migrated into California. The exact route by which they came is not yet known. They may have travelled along the now-surbmerged coastal shelf, or south through the Great Basin from the Columbia Plateau, or west from the southern Great Plains or across the American southwest. These First Californians were foragers and hunters, living in isolated groups, small in size (sometimes called micro-bands with each band composed of fewer than 10 kin-related people), and armed with the simplest of hunting and foraging tools, but possessing far-from-simple hunting and foraging technology.

The oldest definite evidence of humans in California consist mainly of isolated specimens or surface scatters of fluted projectile points. These artifacts closely resemble Clovis points from the American Midwest and Southwest dated to between 12,000 and 11,000 years ago. These points were used to hunt and kill large game animals, such as mammoth, horse, bison, and giant ground sloth. However, there are no unequivocal big-game kill sites in California and it's likely that the first Californians led a generalized gathering-hunting way of life, taking both large and medium-sized animals like deer, and small mammals such as rabbits. They must also have exploited wild plant foods as well perhaps as aquatic resources when the opportunity to do so arose. They probably lived in small camps (like that pictured at right) for anywhere from a few days to as long as a few weeks. And as they were people who were constantly on the move, their toolkits were highly effective, lightweight, and portable.

After 11,000 years ago, different lifeways emerged, with no one cultural pattern predominating. People still followed a seasonally migratory way of life and still depended on gathering and hunting but their cultures were richer, technologically more advanced and much more versatile than earlier settlers. The subsistence focus is characterized by wide, if selective, exploitation of the environment whether this environment was difficult, as in the southeastern interior desert, or lush and inviting, as along the southern California coast or the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta. Hence, tools are more varied for more varied purposes and cultures tended to be stable because of a satisfactory balance and adjustment with resources. Between 11,000 &4,000 years ago many regional specializations arose

Wherever shallow lakes occured, mainly in the southeastern regions of the state, people camped near these lakes and lived by hunting large and small game, taking waterfowl, and gathering plant foods. This lifeway flourished until about 8,000 years ago, when warmer climates led to the lakes drying up, although in some regions where lakes persisted, the tradition endured to about 7,000 years ago.

At the same time that people were settling around the lakes, other areas of California were being occupied. Some people settled on the sea coasts and by wide estuaries, where the bounty of aquatic resources and waterfowl enabled them to live comfortable lives. In each region, people developed specialized knowledge of local resources and how to exploit them. For example, along the southern California coast, people were gathering mollusks, taking birds, hunting both land and sea mammals, and collecting plant foods, moving seasonally from one concentration of edible foods to another. Then around 8,000 years ago, people began to add hard seeds to their subsistence base. At about this same time the islands off of south coastal California were first occupied, implying some sort of watercraft had been developed. Here people built semi-subterranean pithouses, harvested shellfish and used metates and manos to process small nuts and seeds, and buried their dead in red ocher-sprinkled graves.

As time went on, coastal cultures became increasingly diversified and their technology highly specialized. Around 5,000 years ago, people living along the Santa Barbara Channel combined their older collecting, hunting, and gathering patterns with the hunting of sea-mammals and the taking of both shallow- and deep-water fish. Then, about a 1,000 years later, as sea levels rose drwoning the seed-rich coastal plain, people shifted their subsistence strategies to harvesting acorns, which eventually became the basic staple for almost all California groups.

In central California a different cultural pattern emerged. Before 5,000 - 4,000 years ago, this region was occupied by widespread, but scattered, populations of hunter-gatherers. Then about 4,500 years ago, people well adapted to riverine and marshland environments settled in the Sacramento Delta region. Archaeological evidence suggests their economy focused on hunting deer, elk, antelope, and rabbits, taking sturgeon, salmon, and other fish from the rivers and streams by means of spears, nets, and lines, as well as gathering storable plant foods, particularly acorns.

Between 3,500 years ago and 2,500 years ago a slightly different pattern emerged in the San Francisco Bay area. Here, people adapted to estuaries, bays, and marshes with their diverse resources, harvesting fish and shellfish, hunting waterfowl and small and medium sized land mammals, and harvesting many edible plant species. Over time, acorns came to play a greater and greater role in the economy. By focusing on acorns, people exploited smaller territories, moved around less, and claimed specific territories, all behaviors leading to greater organizational complexity in local societies.

By 1,500 years ago all across California large villages, far-flung trade networks, social stratification, and elaborate ceremonies had emerged. These patterns intensified so that by 1,000 - 500 years ago new levels of social and political complexity has emerged, some settlements had 1,500 people or more living in them, trade networks now linked most parts of the state, and there was widespread use of marine shell beads as money. This was the situation when the Europeans came sailing into California waters less than 230 years ago.

While this is a useful beginning for understanding the evolution of Native Californian societies, that's all it is -- a beginning, a framework that now needs to be in-filled. So I've prepared some "filling" for you.

Archaeologists divide California's past into time periods, both to emphasize features share by cultures at one time as well as highlight their differences from cultures of other times. Unfortunately, there's little agreement on how best to divide the past that is useful and/or consistent across California. The one used here is derived from The Archaeology of California by Joseph Chartkoff and Kerry Chartkoff, and divides the period before the coming of the Europeans and Ameropeans (American born descendants of European settlers) into three major time periods, each recognized and defined in terms of shared lifeways (i.e., adaptations to the environment). These periods are:

 Paleo-Indian

 Archaic

 Formative

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Last update: 16 August 1999