As was the case for the rest of native California, each of the major groups of the southern coastal region was a non-political ethnic nationality; that is, a people sharing similar culture, history, religious sytem, language, and territory. From north to south, along the coast, these non-political ethnic nationalities were the Chumash, Gabrielino, Luiseño, and Ipai-Tipai along the coast, and the Serrano, Cahuilla, and Cupeño immediately eastward. These non-political ethnic nationalities varied from several thousand to ten or more thousand people in number. And some had been politically stable and sedentary for several thousand years prior to European contact, due, in part, to an elaborate system of economic exchange and services that crossed sociopolitical and cultural boundaries, coupled with a fortunate environmental potential enhanced by sophisticated technologies for exploiting food resources from the sea and land.

The Chumash and Gabrielino who occupied the southern California coast (from just north of present-day San Luis Obispo to south of Los Angeles) and adjacent offshore islands developed one of the most complex expressions of cultural development known among peoples with a gathering-hunting-fishing subsistence base. In many ways, the coastal and island dwelling Chumash, along with the Gabrielino, were among the most exceptional Formative Period cultures. They were fishers of exceptional ability and were unique in California in that their subsistence centered around ocean fishing (and to a lesser extent, the hunting of sea mammals). Without doubt their most outstanding technological feature was the frameless plank canoe, or tomol. With their swift multi-plank canoes, the Chumash and Gabrielino were capable of navigating long distance in open seas. The plank canoe had a profound effect on the development of a maritime economy and, coupled with the richness of the fisheries of the Santa Barbara Channel, allowed the rise of fully sedentary communities of as many as 1,000 or more inhabitants, an unheard of village size in the rest of native California.

The coastal dwelling Chumash and Gabrielino also hunted deer and smaller game for winter meat and hides; and, like most native Californians, they relied on an abundant acorn harvest. But it was saltwater fishing that defined their distinctive lifestyle. The great coastal kelp beds provided a rich fishery, home to more than 125 species of fish and numerous sea mammals such as otters, dolphins, whales, and sea lions, while the tidal shorelines provided mussels, abalone, oystgers, scallops, and clams.

When the Spanish first arrived in the 16th century, they appreciated good seamanship when they saw it, and they marveled at Chumash and Gabrielino fishermen in their twenty-five-foot long plank canones, sewn with fiber cordage, and caulked with asphalt. These oceangoing canoes were double-ended and a crew of three or four could easily manage this swift and maneuverable craft. The Chumash and Gabrielino harpooned sea mammals and fished for swordfish, halibut, and tuna.

Villages along the Santa Barbara and Los Angeles coast sometimes numered more than a thousand people. In a special ceremonial area set aside for religious functions, the Chumash and Gabrielino gave thanks to the plants and animals that gave them life. And the Chumash danced to honor the swordfish, the barracuda, and the bear. And both the Chumash and Gabrielino were linked into an extensive trading network using olivella bead money, mostly produced on the Channel Islands. The most powerful chiefs derived their considerable wealth and authority by brokering exchange between islands and inland areas.

South of the Gabrielino were the Luiseño, and south of them, the Ipai and Tipai of San Diego County and the extreme northwestern corner of Baja California. Unlike the Gabrielino and Chumash, the Luiseño and the Ipai and Tipai were principally gatherers and hunters. The Ipai and Tipai followed the age-old archaic seasonal round subsistence pattern: a band's seasonal round was vertical, following the ripening of major plants from canyon floor to higher mountain slopes. Among the Luiseño, sedentary village groups were the norm, with each laying claim to specific hunting, collecting, and fishing areas located in diverse ecological zones. And each year, at the time of the acorn harvest, the majority of each village's population would camp for several weeks in the mountain groves to collect acorns, hunt game animals, and collect other foods, industrial materials, and the like. In addition, most inland groups also had fishing and gathering sites on the coast that they visitied annually.

Defining Features

For additional information on the Southern Coastal Region,
please select a topic most applicable to your interests

Languages | Subsistence | Settlement Patterns | Sociopolitical Organization | Religion

Northwest Coast | Northeast | Central Coast and Central Valley
East of the Sierra Divide | Interior Desert | Southern Coastal

Native Peoples of California - Topics

To comment on this page please send email to Chuck Smith at

Page last updated: 23 August 1999