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Dan McCaslin: ‘First Coastal Californians’ a Window Into Chumash Culture, Art

Reading the collection of essays edited by Lynn Gamble may draw you into hiking the backcountry regions where the tribe once roamed

An array of abstract and quasi-geometric style figures can be found in California Native American rock art. Click to view larger
An array of abstract and quasi-geometric style figures can be found in California Native American rock art. (Dan McCaslin photo)

In his foreword to First Coastal Californians, an up-to-date set of thematic articles edited by Lynn Gamble, UCSB anthropology professor Brian Fagan notes that “some of the most complex hunter-gatherer societies on earth flourished along California’s rugged, indented coastline.”

Gamble, also an anthropology professor at UCSB, has assembled 17 essays by 28 authors dealing with various California pre-Columbian societies that lived near the sea and developed socially complex, hunting-gathering-fishing lifestyles.

From reading these chapters, I realized that the Native Americans along the coast and inland had wide-ranging networks of trade and social relationships despite a lack of large adobe houses or settled agriculture such as the Pueblo Indians had. (See 4.1.1. for the books consulted and the list of chapter titles at end of the review.)

While most of us in Santa Barbara are indeed familiar with the local indigenous Native American tribe, the Chumash, this book covers: natives using tule balsa boats in San Francisco Bay, exciting Daisy Cave on San Miguel Island where fragments of a 9,000-year-old sandal have been found, the Tongva of the Ballona wetlands (now LAX), the use of shell beads as money, the importance of shamans and chiefs in religious ritual and tribal politics, and several other highly interesting topics by the many authors.

The helpful map of “Major Native language groups of the California culture area” makes clear the extraordinary diversity of California tribal languages.

My personal interest in Native American societies and especially California’s riveting rock art began with an interest in Greek geometric-style architecture while on an archaeology fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Decades later, as backpacks into our exotic local backcountry grew more frequent and enjoyable, what could be more organic than to develop an interest in the Native American rock art, which frequently displays geometric-style designs? The array of abstract and quasi-geometric style figures in California Native American rock art is very impressive.

In our emerging Anthropocene Era, there’s a reawakening of interest in one of homo sapiens’ most ancient cultural evolutions and survival tools: painting designs and images on rock walls in deep or shallow caves.

Campbell Grant’s fantastic book The Rock Paintings of the Chumash (see 4.1.1.) whetted my aesthetic appetite, so I began reading up on rock art as my backcountry expeditions grew more systematic — in 46 years of backpacking, you get around, and I’ve investigated many scores of rock shelters.

The cover of “First Coastal Californians.”
The cover of “First Coastal Californians.” (Dan McCaslin photo)

Since I neither fish nor hunt, searching for the elusive pictographs and petroglyphs easily morphs from an interest, to a form of study, and finally, shifts into a mild and pleasurable obsession.

Chapter 6 begins with a vivid description of the “Shell Mound Builders of San Francisco Bay,” then shifts to a modern excavation and links the two activities. I did not know that over a 5,000-year period indigenous groups built well more than 400 of the 30-foot-high, football-field-size mounds around the huge, beautiful bay.

The 17 chapters (see titles list) can be thematically divided into four general categories: sections on early Native American occupation of California (began 13,000 years ago); on specific regions (e.g. Ballona); cultural-political themes (shamanism, rock art); and the cultural temblors that came with European invasion and dominance.

In the end, the concise chapter “Chumash paintings on stone” provoked great interest, and some readers may share a similar enthusiasm (pp. 89-96). Two color plates reproduce fine examples of astonishing Chumash rock art designs from locations known to a number of backcountry veterans: Condor Cave (21) and Pool Rock (18).

William Hyder and Georgia Lee, authors of “Chumash paintings on stone,” write that while some pictographs depict actual animals such as rattlesnakes, turtles and coyotes, “one also finds fanciful figures too abstract to recognize” [p. 89]. They make their admiration for the unknown artists clear by noting how Chumash pictographs often have fine-line precision and are executed with meticulous detail. Some of these “fanciful figures” also have been laboriously compared to celestial imagery — e.g., at Condor Cave by T. Hudson and E. Underhay (Crystals in the Sky, 1978) — although these authors give the “astronomy” angle short shrift.

Rock art hound and scholar David S. Whitley has attempted to explain these “non-figural,” abstract designs as being painted by Chumash shamans under the influence of “Mother Momoy” (datura). Hyder and Lee suggest that some of the large, elaborate Chumash painted designs do “appear to have been generated in people’s psyches, perhaps under the influence of fasting or of datura, a hallucinogenic plant also known as jimsonweed.” Other anthropologists believe simply fasting and/or suffering migraine “auras” would implant these abstract, sometimes geometric images in someone’s dream.

The entoptic images are neurally stimulated, and some of the tribal members would “recollect” the sign when they awakened, then carefully paint it on an available rock shelter wall. Painted Cave above Santa Barbara is an example.

Editor Gamble and her co-writers set out to make some detailed archaeological material about coastal Native Americans palatable to interested general readers — thus we see that several chapter authors really do try to tell a story and intrigue the reader (e.g. Chapter 6). Many sections begin with in-the-moment vivid descriptions written in the present tense, e.g., “It is the year 1312 in a place people now call California. … A small group of Indian leaders huddle around the fire in a sweat lodge at Syuxtun [Santa Barbara] a Pacific coast village …” (Chapter 1, p. 1 by L. Gamble).

The final chapter is by an Ohlone Native American woman who has been reviving her tribe’s ancient basket-making skills. This reminds us that our neighbors, the modern-day Chumash, are exuberantly present and have become an increasingly potent influence in the Santa Ynez Valley again (see Gelles' book in 4.1.1.). Two proofs are that their casino is thriving, and at the end of January the official tribe has just added 1,390 acres of the “Camp 4” property into their reservation via the controversial fee-transfer process.

If you are interested in the Native American Chumash people and their brilliant culture and art, these essays will stoke your enthusiasm. I hope this stimulated interest will draw you to hiking with your children into our enchanting backcountry regions where the Chumash and other tribes once roamed.

A great field trip with your children is a quick visit to the Santa Barbara Painted Cave site off Highway 154.

When you are at Chaucer’s Bookstore, pick up a copy of First Coastal Californians. In the list of chapter titles below, I’ve underlined those I particularly enjoyed, and of course the rock art chapter stands out.

Chapter titles

» 13,000 years on the coast; The kelp highway; Paradise found … and lost; Managing the land with fire; Watercraft in coastal California; Shell mound builders of San Francisco Bay; Steinback country before Steinbeck; 10,000 years on the Northern Channel Islands; People of the Ballona; California Indian chiefs and other elites; Religions and rituals of native coastal California; Shell beads as adornment and money; Chumash paintings on stone; Colonization’s cultural earthquake; Rebellions, resistance, and runaways in colonial times; Rising seas, coastal erosion, and archaeological discovery; Weaving the past into the present.

4.1.1.

Books consulted:

» First Coastal Californians, edited by Lynn Gamble (School for Advanced Research Press, 2015)

» The Rock Paintings of the Chumash by Campbell Grant (UC Press, 1965)

» The Art of the Shaman — Rock Art of California by David Whitley (University Utah Press, 2000)

» Crystals in the Sky by T. Hudson and E. Underhay (Ballena Press, 1978)

» Chumash Renaissance: Indian Casinos, Education, and Cultural Politics in Rural California by Paul Gelles (2013)

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Chumash rock art designs from Indian Creek. Click to view larger
Chumash rock art designs from Indian Creek. (Dan McCaslin photo)

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