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March 16, 2012

The Chumash are a rather unique people who occupied the central coast of California. The Chumash people thrived at a very early period in California prehistory, with some settlements dating to at least 10,000 years before present.(Hogan, C.Michael. 2008. Morrow Creek. Ed. A. Burnham.)

There were at least eight different related language groups, or dialects, spoken by the Chumash. The differences between the dialects spoken at the northern and the southern ends of the Chumash region were as great as the differences between Spanish and the English languages. A Chumash person could always tell where another Chumash person came from by how he or she spoke.(Williams, Jack S. The Chumash of California 2002. The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc. p. 25)

Chumash people first encountered Europeans in the autumn of 1542, when two sailing vessels under Juan Cabrillo arrived on the coast from Mexico.

As with most Native American tribes, the Chumash history was passed down from generation to generation through stories and legends. Many of these stories were lost when the Chumash Indian population was all but decimated in the 1700s and 1800s by the Spanish mission system.The Chumash population was eventually decimated, due largely to the introduction of European diseases. By 1831, the number of mission-registered Chumash numbered only 2,788, down from pre-Spanish population estimates of 22,000. (

The lot of the Chumash continued to deteriorate with the arrival of the Anglo-Americans in 1847. In 1855 a small piece of land near the Santa Ines mission was set aside for 109 Chumash, now known as the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.(Brian Fagan has an extensive discussion of the Chumash on pp. 75-92 in his book Time Detectives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Available online at

The modern day towns of Santa Barbara, Montecito, Summerland, and Carpinteria were carved out of the old Chumash territory. The town of Santa Barbara began with Spanish soldiers who were granted small parcels of land by their commanders upon retiring from military service. After mission secularization in 1834, lands formerly under mission control were given to Spanish families loyal to the Mexican government. Meanwhile, other large tracts were sold or given to prominent individuals as land grants. Mexican authorities failed to live up to their promises of distributing the remaining land among the surviving Chumash, causing further decline in the Chumash population. By 1870, the region’s now dominant Anglo culture had begun to prosper economically. The Santa Barbara area established itself as a mecca for health seekers, and by the turn of the century it became a haven for wealthy tourists and movie stars. (

According to white historians, the name Chumash is thought to come from the word “Michumash”, which was the Native name for Santa Cruz Island, and which means “place of the islanders”. J.W. Powell first used this term in naming these coastal Natives in 1891, and the name has lingered on.

Many elders today say that Chumash means “bead maker” or “seashell people.” (  Although elder Julie Tumamait claims the peoples’s original name is unknown.

Primarily a hunter-gatherer culture, they were also very successful fisher-folk. They are one of the relatively few New World peoples who regularly navigated the ocean (another was the Tongva, a neighboring tribe located to the south).

Ceremonies marked the significant seasons that their lives were contingent upon with emphasis given to the fall harvest and the storage of food for the winter months. Chumash people lived in large, dome-shaped homes that were made of willow branches. Whalebone was used for reinforcing and the roofs were composed of tulle mats. The interior rooms were partitioned for privacy by hanging reed mats from the ceiling.

Their boats and fishing gear were like no other coastal group, until we study the Northwest peoples. They had well developed woodworking skills, pulling the fallen Northern California redwood trunks and pieces of driftwood from the Santa Barbara Bay, evident in their planked seagoing canoe, called a tomol, whose length could be up to 30′.

Within villages, a Brotherhood of the plank canoe came together to construct the vessels. To belong to the group was a great honor. The well-being of the people depended on building seaworthy canoes that would withstand the rigors of sea travel. Older craftsmen passed the secrets of how to build the craft down to the younger men. The work proceeded slowly, sometimes taking months to complete.

Plank canoes, Ti’at and the Tomol, were anywhere from eight to 30 feet long (more evidence may reveal that some plank canoes could have been 100 feet long) and were made using driftwood and or redwood when they could find it. Traveling at speeds from 11 to 14 knots. The heavy one-piece floor had three or four rows of planks added to build up the sides. Each row of planks was glued in place with asphaltum (tar) or yop, a melted mixture of pine pitch that hardened. After this glue dried, each plank was fastened to the one below by drilling holes on each side of the seam and tying the boards together with plant fiber string made from Indian hemp. The holes and seams were filled with more hot yop. Sanding was done using sandstone and finished with shark skin. Last, the canoe was painted and decorated.(

Their primary food sources were acorns and pine nuts; shell fish; sharks, sea bass, halibut and other fish caught in nets or harpooned; a whale stranded on the beach was an occasion for feasting. Fishermen used nets, harpoons, and fishing hooks. Good bow and arrow hunters, the Indians tracked deer and other wild game. One Spanish missionary wrote, “It may be said for them, the entire day is one continuous meal” (Brian Fagan.Time Detectives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. 75-92.)

Pinesap was used as a kind of glue. Giant wild rye and similar large grasses produced stems that became arrows and containers for tobacco. Wild hemp, milkweed, nettles, and yucca plants were turned into strong strings, chords, and ropes, which were used to make nets, bags, belts, and many other woven objects.(Williams, Jack S. The Chumash of California 2002. The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc. p. 23)

Chumash men were fishermen and hunters, and sometimes they went to war to protect their families. Chumash women ground acorn meal, gathered nuts, fruits and herbs, wove baskets and did most of the cooking and child care. Both genders took part in storytelling, music and artwork, and traditional medicine.

Village chiefs were chosen from important and esteemed Chumash families by village elders, and could be either men or women.

Chumash families were combine into larger groups called clans. Clan members believed that their founder was an animal, such as a bear, an eagle, or a coyote. (Williams, Jack S. The Chumash of California 2002. The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc. p. 26)

The Chumash villages were endowed with a shaman/astrologer. These gifted astronomers charted the heavens and then allowed the astrologers to interpret and help guide the people. The Chumash believed that the world was in a constant state of change, so decisions in the villages were made only after consulting the charts. (

Originally, Chumash people didn’t wear much clothing– women wore only knee-length grass or deerskin skirts, and men usually went naked except for a ceremonial belt. Shirts were not necessary in Chumash culture, but the Chumashes sometimes wore deerskin capes or feather robes when the weather became cooler. Unlike most Native American tribes, the Chumashes never wore moccasins.

The Chumashes painted their faces for special occasions. They used different colors and patterns for war paint, religious ceremonies, and festive decoration.

The Rainbow Bridge:

The first Chumash were created on Santa Cruz Island by the Earth Goddess Hutash who fashioned them from the seeds of a magic plant. Hutash was married to the Sky Snake (the Milky Way), who could make lightning bolts with his tongue. One day, the Sky Snake decided to present the gift of fire to the Chumash.

After Sky Snake gave the Chumash fire, they lived more comfortably than before. More children were born each year, the Chumash villages grew, and the island became crowded. The noise of all these people talking, playing and working began to annoy Hutash and kept her awake at night. So, she decided that some of the Chumash had to leave the island and move to the mainland, which in those days was uninhabited.

But how was Hutash going to move the Chumash across the sea channel to the mainland? Finally, she got the idea of making a bridge out of a long, high rainbow, which she stretched from the tallest peak on the island to a tall peak in the mountains of the mainland.

Hutash then sent the Chumash across the Rainbow Bridge to fill the whole world with people. A few stayed behind, but most started across the bridge on the long journey to the mainland. Many made it across safely, but some made the mistake of looking down to the water far, far below. Because the bridge was high and there was a thick fog swirling about, those who looked down became very dizzy and fell off the bridge into the churning waves of ocean below. Hutash felt very bad about this, and she didn’t want the Chumash in the water to drown, so she turned them into dolphins. This is why the Chumash have always said that the dolphins are their brothers and sisters.

Presently, the Santa Barbara Channel is up to 1500ft deep. The channel was much more shallow during the Ice Age.

The Channel Islands are the highest portions of the now mostly submerged superisland Santa Rosae. Before the end of the last Ice Age, the northern four Channel Islands of California were linked in a single contiguous island only 4.7 miles offshore. Geography took its present shape after the continental ice sheets melted and sea levels rose 400 feet. There is also evidence to suggest that a submerged island, Calafia, lay between Santa Rosae and the mainland.

Ancient Bones May Rewrite History
by John R. Johnson, Ph.D.
Curator of Anthropology, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History:

One of the outstanding discoveries made by Phil C. Orr during more than three decades of work as Curator of Anthropology and Paleontology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History was his 1959 find of three ancient human bones found buried 30 feet deep in the side wall of Arlington Canyon on Santa Rosa Island. Orr immediately recognized the importance of his find and convened a committee of renowned archaeologists to verify the stratigraphic context of the bones. Charcoal from the same stratum that contained the bones was dated to 10,000 years before present, making the skeletal remains the oldest found in North American until that time. Orr called his discovery “Arlington Springs Man.”

In the years since Orr’s discovery, doubt was cast on the validity of the old dates because the bones were found in an eroded stream channel and the possibility remained that they were younger than the charcoal. With foresight toward the future when improved radiocarbon-dating techniques would become available, Orr removed a block of earth that contained the bones, wrapped it in plaster, and placed it in Museum storage.

In 1989, Dr. John Johnson, Curator of Anthropology, and Don Morris, Channel Islands National Park archaeologist, initiated a project to re-evaluate the age of the Arlington Springs remains. Johnson and Chumash research assistant Gilbert Unzueta excavated a portion of femur from the block of earth and sent samples to several specialists in bone chemistry analysis and radiocarbon dating.

The result of this research demonstrated that the bones appear to be older than Orr expected, dating to approximately 13,000 years ago. Measurements taken, however, indicate that Orr had mislabeled the individual. Arlington Springs “Man” was in fact a lady!

During the end of the Pleistocene, when Arlington Springs Woman lived, the sea level was at least 150 feet lower than it is today and the Northern Channel Islands were joined as one island. This woman’s presence on an island at this early date is significant, because it demonstrates that the earliest Paleo-Indians had watercraft necessary to cross the Santa Barbara Channel.

The discovery challenges the popular belief that the first colonists to North America arrived at the end of the last ice age about 11,500 years ago by crossing a Bering land bridge that connected Siberia to Alaska and northwestern Canada. The earlier date and the location of the woman’s remains on the island adds weight to an alternative theory that some early settlers may have constructed boats and migrated from Asia by sailing down the Pacific coast.

These are the oldest human remains yet discovered in North America!

There seems to be a lot of extremely ancient remains on the Channel Islands:

The abundance of prehistoric Chumash artifacts found in the Santa Barbara Channel have helped archeologists piece together Chumash trade networks, fishing practices and submerged village sites. Archeologists suggest that portions of the northern Channel Islands were likely sites of Chumash villages, and are now submerged by changes in sea level. Thousands of years ago the sea level was at least 150 feet lower than it is today and the northern Channel Islands were joined as one island… Recently discovered paleontological remains have also contributed to the rich record of the coastal area. In 1994, for example, a reletively complete pygmy mammoth was discovered on a coastal bluff on the north shore of Santa Rosa Island. This discovery represents the most complete pygmy mammoth discovered in the world to date. The discovery suggests a high probability of the existence of submerged paleontological remains. (“Tribal Maritime Protected Areas: Protecting Maritime Ways and Cultural Practices” By Michael Vuncent Mcginnis, Ph.D with a section from Roberta Reyes Cordero, JD & assistance from Matt Stadler, M.E.S. Bioregional Planning Associates, 3865 Sterrett Avenue, Santa Barbara, California 93110)

Ya know, there are stories of a lost continent in the Pacific called Lemuria or Mu…   

How did the Chumash learn to make plank boats (the only ones ever seen on this continent)? They used a double bladed paddle for their boats and a distinctive style of harpoon, both of which are only found with the Eskimo people. They used spear throwers – a highly unusual weapon not commonly seen on this continent. They used fish hooks carved of bone and stone in a design only found in the Polynesian Islands and Japan. Their tap sticks are used in the islands of the South Pacific, Africa, Mexico, and other locations in Pacific Rim countries. Bull roarers are musical instruments of Australia, the South American tribes – and where else? Pan pipes are instruments of the South American tribes – and where else?

I’m just sayin, there are stories…


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