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Food and Bounty of the Chumash


"The Chumash congregated in large villages ruled by local chiefs, who maintained trading contact over extensive areas of the west. The people lived off the ocean and the land. During the rainy season, from November to March, they subsisted on dried meat and stored vegetable foods. They also collected shellfish and caught fish from the dense kelp beds close offshore. In spring, the Chumash ranged far afield. collecting fresh plant growth and tubers. Summer brought tuna and other warm water fish to Channel waters. The fishing season reached its peak at the end of summer and in the early fall, when the canoes caught enormous numbers of tuna. Pine nuts and acorns were gathered in the fall and stored for leaner winter months. The Indians hunted sea mammals whenever the opportunity arose, and scavenged occasional whale carcasses that washed ashore on the beaches. This marine wealth resulted from the upwelling which replenishes the surface layers of the Santa Barbara Channel with nutrients and zooplankton. Billions of sardines feed here every spring. Larger fish and pelicans prey in turn on the sardines. The Chumash literally harvested the fish with hooks, nets, and spears. At least 125 fish species flourished in the thick kelp beds close offshore alone. The incredible bounty of Channel waters enabled the Chumash to live in more-or-less permanent villages. " ( from "The Great Journey" pgs 256-57 )

Fishing equipment that survives today from prehistoric islanders and mainland fisherman include fish hooks carved from bone and abalone shell, fishing spears with points that could detach and leave the main shaft in the thrower's hands with a fibre rope leading to the hook and the prey, nets knotted with plant fiber ropes, and pointed gorges made from bone or wood that would be swallowed by the fish and catch them internally. [ hooks, net, spear, gorge ]

The sea's bounty provided many diverse resources for the islanders. Seals and sea lions provided meat for food, skins for blankets and capes, whiskers for drilling small holes in shells, and bones for tools. Sea otters were prized for their fur ( which lead to their near extinction in future years under white settlers hunting methods ). Whales provided food when washed ashore, and their large rib bones were used in their buildings and as tools, while their vertebrae were used for stools or grinding mortars. [ whale, sea lion, sea otter ]

Abalone made beautiful ornaments from its pearlized inner shell, served for dishware, was used inlaid in asphaltum on rock art and on canoes; its meat was pounded and prepared much as it is today. Olivela shells were used to as a form of money, and clams provided both meat for food and as excellent scrapers for wood working, basketmaking, skin tanning and beadmaking. Fish were a staple food source, while sharkskin was used as sandpaper to smooth woodworking projects including the tomol planks and elaborate dishware later admired by the Spanish. The head of the swordfish was dried to serve as a headdress for ceremonial costumes and dancing. [ abalone, olivela, swordfish head ]

Now the bane of southern California beaches, asphaltum was readily used by the Chumash as a sealant, and also as a plastic substance that could receive inlays of shell and beads for decorating canoes, effigies, bowls or even on rare occasions, rock art. It also was used to waterproof the inside of baskets, to mend stone bowls, and to attach arrowheads to their shafts. The asphaltum is a naturally occurring substance that seeps out of fissures in the Channel floor, and its globules float on the water until they wash up on the shore.