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Steatite Trading

The extensive soapstone quarries and mines on Santa Catalina Island constitute the only known worked source for soapstone vessels within the Chumash and Tongva' territories. Thus the Pimugnans (Catalina's Tongva' peoples) had a virtual monopoly over the production and exchange of this valuable trade item. What effect did the virtual monopoly have on the socio-economic interaction between the indigenous peoples on Santa Catalina, the mainland and other Channel Islands? Did some people become part-time specialists in response to the increasing demand for these high status vessels? Did local chiefs have any control over the production and exchange of these vessels? These issues are linked with the broad theoretical interest in the rise of economic and social complexity in hunting and gathering societies in general, and societies in Southern California specifically.

Evidence of soapstone bowl production still exists on Catalina in the form of quarries, mines, debris from shaping the bowls and broken tools. It was these traces of past production activities that the field crews initially located (or relocated) through survey work. Then we documented them by mapping the site, illustrating the extent of the quarry/mine, characterizing the petrology and tool marks present on the outcrop, and describing the types of artifacts associated with the quarry and/or mine. While arduous and time-consuming, this detailed surface survey was necessary if we were to understand the regional extent, and patterning of the production sites.

Used for storage, cooking and ceremonial functions, these vessels constitute one of the most important trade materials in the Chumash and Gabrielino (Tongva') worlds from circa 1100 A.D. into the Historic era. In Chumash and Tongva' sites on the Southern California mainland, these vessels appear to have been important wealth goods, even when used for utilitarian purposes. Soapstone vessels performed many of the functions normally associated with pottery cookware and storage and may partially account for the absence of pottery development by the Chumash.