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Classical America: The West: California

Classical America: The West: California


Environment and Early Settlement. The present-day state of California encompasses a wide range of environments. In the North are large, wet forests situated between steep mountains. In the center of the state run several large, well-watered valleys, and in the South one finds desert climates typical of the Southwest. The coast varies as well; some stretches are rocky and inaccessible while others have sandy beaches. Little archaeological work has been carried out in California, and piecing together the regions prehistory is difficult. What little digging has been done, however, confirms patterns typical of the rest of the continent. Clovis people entered the state approximately nine thousand years ago, and between 6000 and 3000 b.c. they made the transition from big-game hunting to hunting and gathering. By 3000 b.c. the Archaic inhabitants had developed diversified subsistence strategies that initiated a prolonged period of regional cultural diversification.

Porno: 3000 b.c. to a.d. 1600. The Pomos lived on the north coast and divided their time between coastal redwood forests, where they erected seasonal camps and fished and hunted marine mammals such as seals, sea lions, and sea otters, and the foothills of the interior where they built semipermanent villages. They lived in small groups of several hundred, but chiefs belonged to a ruling elite differentiated from commoners by their control of prestige goods such as shells, ornamental finery, and other goods the people held in high esteem. Their most important source of food was the acorns they collected in the fall. Women pounded them into meal and soaked the meal overnight in water to leech out the bitter tasting tannins before preparing it in breads and soups. Women also used stone mortars to grind seeds, and they dried seaweed for consumption. Men hunted small game. A lack of pottery marks the Pomos as a decidedly Archaic people, and their culture changed little from its Archaic roots before 1600 a.d..

Yokut: 4000 b.c. to 1600 a.d. At least eight thousand years ago the first humans moved into the present-day San Joaquin Valley in central California. After six thousand years the roots of the Yokut culture appeared, and over time two groups emergedthe Southern Yokuts and the Northern Yokuts. The Southern Yokuts lived in

a more arid climate than their northern counterparts, and acorns were scarce. Instead they fished and hunted in the marshes that characterized the reaches of the lower valley. They migrated little and tended to live in permanent villages, and like the Pomos they never developed an indigenous pottery tradition. The Northern Yokuts enjoyed a milder climate, foraged for acorns, and fished for salmon. They also lacked pottery but traded for earthen containers with nearby tribes. Like the Pomos, the Yokuts underwent little cultural change in the millennia before 1600 a.d.

Chumash: 1000 b.c. to 1600 a.d. One of the richest environments in California included present-day Santa Barbara, where a narrow channel separates the mainland from offshore islands and is home to a diverse sea-life population. Sometime around 5000 b.c. the first humans settled the area, and by 1000 b.c. the distinct Chumash culture appeared in the archaeological record. Although they lacked pottery, Chumash women made basins and bowls from steatite, a mineral that can be chipped and ground into a variety of shapes. For fishing and for hunting seal and porpoise in the channel, men made canoes out of planks. When not at sea, hunters pursued deer and rabbits while women collected acorns in baskets. The culture retained its basic form well into the historic period.


Robert F. Heizer, ed., Handbook of the North American Indians: California (Washington, d.c.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978);

Heizer and Mary A. Whipple, eds., The California Indians: A Sourcebook (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971).

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