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History: Indians

Historical Sketch of the California Indians

The Origins of California's Tribes

Archaeologists have long theorized that the earliest humans in the American continents came here from Siberia. During the last great period of glaciation, the Wisconsin, the ocean levels dropped below the continental shelf between Alaska and Siberia and exposed a large continuous landmass that we call Beringia. The land crossing was available for at least 10,000 years. Glaciation was at its height in about 16,000 B.C. and Beringia had been sufficiently submerged again, by 8000 B.C., to prevent further migration. All of this fits in neatly with the fact that, for many years, the only acceptable dates for early human presence were associated with the Llano Complex in the Southwest --- chiefly, Clovis (9500-9000 B.C.) and Folsom (9000-8000 B.C.).

The term "migration" is about as unrealistic as the term "land bridge" that is often used. In fact, it was an expanse of land which was gradually settled eastward over many generations. If a generation is fifteen years, and each generation settled a mere twenty-five miles further east, in the land, both animal and human occupation would have proceeded 250 miles eastward in 150 years, 2500 miles in 1500 years, and 25,000 miles in 15,000 years. This means that, if Beringia was first exposed in 24,000 B.C., Old World animals and humans could easily have fully inhabited the American continents, all the way south to Chile, by 8000 B.C. when access was ended.

There are problems with this theory, of course. One of these is the fact that glaciation made the exposure of Beringia possible but also blocked the path with harsh cold, mountainous ice shelves, and few opportunities for nourishment. Was there an open corridor through Canada? How long? Did early people move along the coastline on exposed continental shelf? Another problem is that archaeologists are slowly discovering sites that date much further back in time --- 30,000 and even 40,000 years ago. If these dates are eventually accepted, then early humans had to reach the Americas by means other than land. Some theorists are beginning to consider the possibility that people migrated to South America by boat via the South Pacific, within the very early timeframe when the South Pacific Islands were being settled.

All of these theoretical discussions clearly assume that the Americas had to be settled by inward migration from the Old World and rely on the idea that human evolution began in Africa. Other people suggest, on the contrary, that humans have always lived in the Americas or were created in this place. The majority of origin myths, traditional to Native Americans, explicitly tell of these things. Some people even assert theories of "reverse migration" --- suggesting that origins in the Americas supplied the original humans to the rest of the world.

No matter where one stands on theories of human creation or migration, it remains interesting to ask how humans first arrived in California. Native California origin myths almost always tell of local creation. The Maidu and Cahuilla stories are representative, and they can be contrasted with the Zuni myth, from the Southwest, which tells of people's subterranean origin followed by a hard and lengthy migration into Zuni territory.

For professional archaeologists, there is little or no evidence that can suggest how the first people arrived in California. Perhaps by sea? Along the coastline? Westward out of the Southwest? Who knows. What archaeologists can say is that several Paleoindian sites are firmly established in California; and half of these are along the coastline. San Diego County claims that largest concentration. While dates remain in dispute on most of these, there is no doubt that they are at least 10,000-11,000 years old. (For some information about California archaeology)

Of greater interest, perhaps, is the huge period of time from 8000 B.C. to 1500 A.D., when the continents were not visited by other people. In their treatise on California's archaeology, the Chartkoffs divide this period into two parts. The first is the Archaic and it is a complex of cultural lifeways shared throughout the Western United States for a long time and continued in the Great Basin region right up to the time of Euro-American invasion. The second is the Pacific and it is a complex of distinctive lifeways that were well fitted to specific ecological niches and that represent the development of California's more-than-one-hundred distinct tribes.

The Archaic, in California, began at the end of the Paleoindian period, about 10,000 years ago, and ended for most people around 4000 years ago. It is distinguished from the Paleoindian period by the decline in nomadic big-game hunting that centered around large desert playas and by the rise of a much more systematic and somewhat localized utilization of diverse resources. Typical of the Archaic period is the so-called "Annual Round." People were neither nomadic nor committed to a single locality; instead, they lived in a seasonal cycle that incorporated a succession of localities and, ultimately, led them back to a wintering haven. Their "Annual Round" allowed them to appropriate and utilize resources as they became available. They became experts in their natural environments, understanding seasonal diversity and developing specialized tools for processing foods. The millstone horizon falls within this period; that is to say, people began to appropriate seeds and nuts and to grind them into meals that could be baked or mixed into mushy soups.

The Pacific period, in California, began around 2000 B.C. This date should be compared with the evolution of tribal cultures in Europe and around the Eastern Mediterranean, in the period from 3000 B.C. to 2300 B.C. In California, language is often a good clue to origins. It is interesting to note, then, that linguists believe many of the northern Hokan speakers became isolated from each other around 2500 to 2000 B.C. When we identify the tribes that were Hokan speakers on the language map, it appears that they may have been pushed apart by inward migrating Penutian speakers who filled the Central Valley and Foothills. Somewhat later, perhaps as late as 500 B.C., another inward migration seems to have brought Uto-Aztecan speakers from the Great Basin all the way to the Pacific Coast, separating the Hokan speaking Chumash from the Ipai/Tipai.

Whatever the origins of these people, as they settled into California's unique ecological regions, they began to utilize resources in quite different ways. Archaic life was largely hand-to-mouth and provided little surplus; people of the Pacific period began to develop food sources that could provide surpluses. More to the point, they began to develop ways of processing and preserving food resources that did occur in sufficient quantity to be put away for later consumption. These resources might be harvested in relatively short periods of time, but they could be harvested and processed in sufficient quantity that the resulting supply of food would last through the year. For most of California, the acorn and salmon were crucial to this cultural complex; they were nourishing, plentiful staple foods. Where acorns and salmon were not available, they were replaced by pine nuts, mesquite beans, or rabbits.

The importance of the development of staple foods lies in the fact that it allowed people of the Pacific period to settle into a locality. This promoted coalescence into tribes and tribelets, identification with localities, and development of a strong cultural relationship between context and custom. It is easy to see the result of this process in ritual celebrations such as "First Fruit" celebrations.

The people of California were entirely unaware of and unaffected by the landing of Christopher Columbus in 1492. But, fifty years later, in 1542, Juan Rodrieguez Cabrillo sailed along California's coast and investigated San Diego Bay, Catalina Island, San Pedro, and the Channel Islands. Thirty-seven years later, Francis Drake explored portions of the northern coastline and may have spent a month's time with groups of Coastal Miwoks. Little in these first contacts was traumatic and few native people were affected; but stories about these white visitors with their big ships and loud guns must have crept into narratives throughout the state. At the same time, since the Spanish had already moved into the Southwest and attempted to incorporate the pueblo people into their archaic feudalism, by the early 1600s, stories must have traveled westward along numerous trading routes. California's isolation was about to end.

Suggested reading:

Dixon, E. James. Quest for the Origin of the First Americans (University of New Mexico Press, 1993)
Chartkoff, Joseph L. And Kerry Kona Chartkoff. The Archaeology of California (Stanford University Press, 1984).

Historical Sketch of the California Indians - continue >>

ecology: wildlife - plants - geography: places - MAPS - roads & trails: route 66 - old west - communities - weather - glossary
ghost towns - gold mines - parks & public lands: wilderness - native culture - history - geology: natural features - comments

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