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The Chumash

Chumash traditional wear The Chumash Indians lived in a mainland and island region that now comprises San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Malibu, as well as the islands off the Santa Barbara coast. Their society was one of the most complex in California, with established class and rank divisions, and specialists in healing, crafts, manufacturing, hunting and governing well established. Their lives were strongly influenced by the natural world around them, and they found an abundance of wild life and wild foods available for their sustenance. The Chumash were expert seafarers, manufacturing an ingenious canoe, called a tomol that enabled them to traverse the Channel to visit their mainland counterparts, and to visit with other peoples scattered across the eight island archipelago.

On the mainland, large villages grew along the shorelines, particularly where rivers or streams fed into the ocean, and also at inland locations. On the islands, Chumash villages were concentrated near natural springfed water sources. By the 1800s, there were 10 towns on Santa Cruz, 7 on Santa Rosa, and 2 on San Miguel. The societies in these villages had a well developed political and cultural tradition, a unique cosmology, and distinct religious and political traditions.

The towns were made of domed houses thatched with sea grass on the islands, and with tule reed leaves on the mainland, overlapping to provide a water proof skin suspended on a lashed, wooden skeletal frame work. They were able to master the local food resources in their region, relying on plant and animal food resources that supported thousands of people each year. The prehistoric Chumash are now internationally renowned for their colorful rock art and its mysterious symbols painted under sandstone over hangs, in remote caves, and along cliff faces in the mountain ranges on the mainland.

Chumash Stone Bowl On the islands, where the inhabitants lived in relative seclusion from the mainland, it is debated by scientists if it might be possible, as Chumash legend tells, that the Islanders were the first Chumash who eventually migrated to the mainland. Evidence does suggest that human inhabitants of the islands left some of the earliest signs of aboriginal presence in North America. When the Spanish arrived in 1542, members of the expedition described the Chumash as a flourishing people with well crafted artifacts and an established social order who had been living in the region for thousands of years. Recent finds by scientists date the earliest occupation of the islands by First People as far back as 13,000 years.

Scientists estimate that at least 15,000 Chumash were living on the mainland and 3,000 on the islands at the time of the arrival of the Spanish. When the Spanish Mission system was established on the mainland in the late 1700s, many of the islanders were rounded up and brought to the nearest mainland ports from which they were sent into forced labor and religious conversion in nearby Missions. Others were allowed to remain on their islands as a deterrence to non-Spanish settlement by other European explorers. Those who remained off the coast of Santa Barbara who survived a deadly measles epidemic in the first years of the 1800s, eventually migrated to the mainland as a result of a warm-water weather pattern, know now as El Nino, that disrupted the islandís regular fisheries and food supply 1812-1816, and as a result of a terrifying earthquake that shook Santa Rosa in 1812.

The reason their pre-colonization numbers were so numerous - and densely populated in villages, is due to the abundant sources of food and effective trade network with other peoples in California. The ocean provided many important food resources for the Chumash and their diet consisted of seasonal plants and animals gathered on the land and from the sea.

From the original number of 18,000 Chumash upon European arrival, the Native American population rapidly dropped by the thousands until there were only 100 Chumash left, their predecessors ravaged by new diseases introduced by the Europeans, by the grueling forced labor the remaining Indians were subjected to under the domination of the European Presidio and Mission systems, and the equally hard labor of the Mexican rancho systems. With their cultural traditions forbidden by the European settlers, their original lands no longer accessible for food gathering, the Chumash civilization that was so prolific for 10,000 years nearly came to a close.

Food and Bounty

Chumash Vocabulary