In the past, Chumash people lived in an area from present day San Luis Obispo to Malibu, including
the four northern Channel Islands. Many of their village sites were concentrated along the coastline.
The Chumash culture was a true maritime culture. They hunted and gathered natural resources from
both the ocean and the coastal mountains to maintain a highly developed way of life.
Chumash society featured an upper class comprised of chiefs, shaman, boat builders and artisans, a
middle class of workers, fishermen and hunters, and a lower class of poor people and outcasts.
The Chumash language featured several dialects. They traded with each other, the Gabrielino of the
southern Channel Islands, the Mojave Indians, and the Yokut of the San Joaguin valley. Chumash
articles, such as baskets, steatite bowls and carvings, and shell ornaments were highly prized
because of the skill with which the Chumash worked these items. Trade and travel between the
island and mainland was accomplished by means of plank canoes called tomols. These seaworthy
vessels are a tribute to Chumash engineering.
Life was anything but dull for the Chumash. Games, gambling, music, religious cermonies,
storytelling and art enriched the day lives of these people.
The Spanish were the first Europeans to visit the Chumash in 1542. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was
impressed by the friendliness of these people. However, along with European "discovery" came
European diseases. Even relatively minor illnesses, such as he common cold, were devastating to
the people of North America, and many Chumash perished.
Five Spanish missions were constructed in Chumash territory, an attempt to convert the people to
Chrisianity and secure the area for Spain against the Russian and Aleut fur-traders. The Chumash
were assimilated into the missions and slowly began to lose their traditional way of life. When
California became part of Mexico, the government secularized the missions and the Chumash sank
into the depths of poverty. By the time of the California gold rush, the Chumash were outcasts and
little was done to understand them or help them.
Today, the Chumash are once again taking pride in their culture and trying to revive their onceforgotten way of life. Much has been lost, but the Chumash live!
There are two National Park Service areas within the Chumash realm: Channel Islands National
Park and Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. The role of the National Park Service
regarding the Chumash is twofold:
1. To provide opportunities for visitors of the park areas and for local communities to learn
about the Chumash culture. The Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center at Santa
Monica Mountains is another exciting opportunity to learn about Chumash and other native
American cultures.
2. To preserved Chumash areas within the parks. Park archaeologists and historians identify
important areas and rangers protect these areas from vandalism and damage.
Trade Economy of the Island Chumash
The island Chumash had a culture quite different from their mainland counterparts, sharing the
general Hokan language, but having a very unique system of survival. Since the islands didn't
support the same numbers of flora and fauna as the mainland, much of what they needed had to be
traded for. Thus, their whole economy was based on this interchange--among other islands and the
As in most cultures, the range of trade was determined by the method of transporting goods. The
Chumash accomplished this by developing seagoing vehicles we call plank canoes, or "tomols."
These vessels were 10-30 feet in length, and the larger tomols could carry a ton or more of cargo
plus a few people to load and unload. (Early Spanish accounts note they were very impressed with
the speed and maneuvering ability of these boats.) This style of boat is also seen in the outrigger
hulls of the Marshall Islands, plus boats from other cultures in Europe, the Mediterranean and
Middle East.
The canoes were built by craftsmen of a "canoe guild," who were some of the most important
people in the Chumash tribe. Construction of a tomol took about six months, and the costs were
high (much like boats today). The canoes were built mostly from redwood logs that had floated
down the coast from northern California and washed up on the shores of the islands and mainland
(Carpinteria beach near Santa Barbara was named by an early Spanish explorer for the Chumash
boatworks located there). Pine and fir were also used to a lesser degree.
These logs were split with whalebone wedges, cut into 4-foot long planks, then dried and seasoned.
Each plank was carefully shaped with bone, shell and stone tools, then smoothed with sharkskin
sandpaper. The planks were then placed one-by-one onto a wide foundation board and glued
together using a mixture of asphaltum (or tar) and pine sap called "yop". For extra strength, holes
were drilled along the edges and ends, and the boards were tied or "sewn" together using milkweed
or hemp cordage. The holes and cordage were then resealed with yop.
When canoes had completely dried, rough edges were sanded with sharkskin, and the boats were
usually painted with a brick-red paint to help seal the wood (made from ground hematite, pine pitch
and animal fat). Decorative shell inlay was often added. Like most boats, however, the canoes
were not completely watertight, so one of the crew's jobs was constant bailing during their journeys.
Since the islanders' most plentiful food sources came from the ocean, marine resources were
probably used as major trade items--namely fish, shellfish, sea mammals (such as otter pelts), and
their associated products (fishhooks, tools, etc.). In exchange, they traded for mainland food items
like acorns, seeds, plant materials, and deer bone products (there were no deer or large terrestrial
mammals on the islands).
Another island commodity was soapstone (or steatite) found only in a Gabrielino quarry on Catalina
Island (the Gabrielino culture was probably closer to the island Chumash than the mainland
Chumash were). This carvable rock was used in making large pots ("ollas") and frying pans that
could be placed directly on a fire. Baby powder, arrow straighteners, and ceremonial amulets were
also made from this substance.
Perhaps the most important island trade items were "shell beads" manufactured on Santa Cruz,
Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands. These beads were the currency of trade in the Chumash area
and throughout California. Olivella shells were the main source for this "money system," and the
islands had an abundant supply.
The method for making shell beads was very tedious and required great skill. The small olivella
was first broken to yield a single jagged piece. A hole was then drilled in the center, using a hand
drill with a tiny rock bit. The shell fragments were then strung on a cord and rolled back and forth
on a rough rock--to round the edges. After stringing the shell beads on longer cords, they were
traded to the mainland and other islands for necessary items. The value of the string of beads was
determined by how many times you could wrap it around your hand.
The drill bits used for drilling the beads broke quite often and replacements were produced by a
separate industry on Santa Cruz Island. There the Chumash had a number of quarries where a
certain kind of chert was mined. Access to the quarries was strictly controlled, but drill "blanks"
were traded widely to the other islands.
Any artifacts found should always be left where they were seen and reported to the Park Service or
another local government agency, whether found on the mainland or the islands. Exact location and
a photograph, if possible, should accompany your report. The largest share of Chumash items
resides in private collections and museums throughout the world, due to thoughtless collecting in
historic times. Collected items are useless in determining age and significance if removed from the
surrounding area.
Chumash Ethnobotany
Talk by Jan Timbrook, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Ethnobotany: interrelationships between people and plants.
The diversity of plant life is greater on the mainland than on the Channel Islands. This posed
problems for the Chumash who depended greatly on plant resources for food, clothing, materials,
and medicines. Important plants such as yucca, Mormon tea and white sage are not found on the
The Chumash could choose one or more of the following options to deal with the lack of plant
Do without
Substitute island plants for mainland species
Introduce the plant to the islands
Trade for plant materials with mainland people
Chumash Food Plants:
The most important plant food for the Chumash was acorns. Deer and fish were the most
important non-plant foods. Preparing the acorns for eating took many steps. First the acorns
were shelled and dried. The acorns were pounded and ground to a flour using a bottomless
basket hopper attached to a flat stone with asphaltum. The hopper prevented the acorns from
flying out of the container. Once the floor was prepared, the tannic acid was leached out by
pouring water over the flour slowly and percolating through the flour, carrying the acid out with
it. Then the flour was mixed with water and cooked form a mush. It has the taste of library
Islay, or holly-leaved cherry, was another important plant food for the Chumash. The cherry pits
were boiled in several changes of water to release the toxic chemicals. Then the pits were
mashed to the consistency of refried beans.
Chia was an important plant food. The tiny seeds contain 26% protein and were important for
their food value. Chia grows in disturbed areas. Other tiny seeds such as redmaids and bunch
grasses were also eaten. The seeds were usually prepared by toasting them in baskets. Redmaids
may have been used in ceremonies and large quantities of tiny seeds have been found in burial
To harvest seeds, the Chumash used seedbeaters that are shaped like tennis rackets. They would
bend the plant over and strike the stalks or seed heads with the seedbeaters. The seeds would fall
into a collecting basket below.
Fire was a tool used by the Chumash to increase productivity of plants. There is evidence that
the Chumash would burn areas every 2-3 years. The burning would produce ash that would
fertilize the plants. The fire management practices were suppressed by the ranchers and missions
after the Europeans arrived in the area.
Brodea or wild onion was eaten by the Chumash. The plants produce water-chestnut sized bulbs
that were dug up with digging sticks. The bulbs were gathered after the seeds were set on the
plants and the activity of digging up the bulbs scattered the seeds. They were prepared by
roasting in earth oven pits.
A digging stick weight or donut stone was often used when digging up roots and bulbs. The
donut stone would fit over the stick and provide a place to rest their hands on and add weight to
the stick to help dig in hard soils.
The island Chumash did go without some plant foods but generally they did obtain what they
needed and wanted. On way of obtaining particular foods was to get it from somewhere else.
The most common method of obtaining food plants was through trade.
The island Chumash did not have the same natural resources that the mainland Chumash had.
Life on the islands was more precarious--winter storms or droughts were generally more
devastating on the islands. Trade helped to sustain the islanders through times of trouble.
The vehicle of trade was the plank canoe or tomol. The tomols were manufactured both on the
mainland and the islands. The Chumash name for Santa Rosa Island was Wi-ma, or redwood
driftwood. The Chumash preferred to manufacture the tomols out of redwood when possible.
Santa Rosa was a valuable source of redwood that would drift down the coast after storms.
The tomols were made by making planks out of redwood or pine using whalebone wedges.
Asphaltum from tar seeps was used to glue the planks together. Once the planks were
positioned, they were drilled. Red milkweed, (which is really indian hemp and not a milkweed
at all), was used to sew the planks together. The tomols were colored red from ground red ocher
or iron hematite.
The tomols could carry up to 1 ton of trade goods and could travel at speeds of 7 knots.
Trade items from the islands to the mainland included raw materials such as abalone shells and
sea otter pelts. However a large proportion of trade items from the islands were manufactured
items such as steatite bowls and bead money.
It is not known for sure if baskets were manufactured on the islands. Many of the materials
needed to make the baskets do not grow on the islands. It is possible that the raw materials such
as juncus were traded to the islands from the mainland. Sea grass was used as a substitute and
remains are found on the islands but not on the mainland.
Many plants were substituted for plants missing on the islands. Tule is rare on the islands and
carriso, or giant wild rye, was substituted for house construction. It was also used for
Ironwood and whale ribs were substituted for framing houses. House pits where used as
windbreaks and also minimized the amount of materials needed to build a house.
Seagrass was used to make baskets and mats.
Medicinal plants: willow--aspirin
nettle--arthritis, rheumatism, discipline
momasha--stomach ulcers
poison oak--remove warts
swamproot--good for everything
Ceremonial plants: tobacco--eaten
datura--deliberately introduced to the islands and possibly California
Introducing plants to the islands: Example--datura
Oak trees may have been introduced to the islands. Some of the oaks on the islands are closely
related to Santa Ynez Valley oaks or are hybrids between the two.
Some Chumash staples
Lemonade Berry -- ripe berries mixed with water for a refreshing beverage. Berries are tangy,
lemony. Very little sugar/no honey available for sweetener.
Abalone Fishhooks -- abalone abundant along island coastlines. Meat eaten, still available in
seafood restaurants today (very pricey). Shells used for many island crafts, as trade items with
mainland. Shiny Chumash fishhook needed no lure or bait to attract fish. Tied/glued with tar to
fishing line made of plant fibers.
Mortar & Pestle -- historically made of sandstone or granite, used to grind seeds, nuts, acorns. Less
hectic lifestyle = more time for food preparation = conversation, storytelling during meal prep.
Chia Seeds -- from an annual sage plant (chia sage), the same seeds used in Chia Pets. A single
seed can be put in eye to remove dirt--it gets gummy in contact with moisture. Seeds also ground
up and added to water for an eyewash. Main use as a high protein food.
Scraper -- made from abalone shell (or others), used to "squeegee" off sweat during sweathouse
gatherings, or to dry off after swim.
Abalone Bowl & Cup -- after the meat was eaten, shells could be used if holes plugged with
Comal -- Chumash frying pan, made of steatite (soapstone) quarried at Santa Catalina Island by
Gabrielino Indians, traded to other southern California tribes. Very valuable as the only cookware
item that could be placed directly on a fire. Also carved into large pots and bowls. Hole in comal is
for stick--to place/remove from fire.
Visitor’s to the Channel Islands are often interested in the prehistoric islanders and their way of
life. One of the most frequent questions we are asked is, “What did they eat?” The simple
answer is shellfish and acorns. Not very appetizing nor very interesting. But, in a world
without supermarkets, fast food, or even microwave ovens, just what did the Island Chumash
“Eat Your Veggies”
The acorn was a staple food for many California Indian groups. Acorns were gathered in the fall
from at least seven species of oaks (Quercus spp.), some of which could yield up to 1000 pounds
of acorns per tree. The Island Oak (Quercus tomentella), called misi by the Chumash, is less
abundant than oaks on the mainland, thus the Chumash compensated by engaging in trade with
their mainland counterparts or organizing their own mainland acorn-gathering trips.
Acorns were gathered, husked, dried and stored in large baskets, then ground into meal with
stone tools. The course flour-like meal was then leached by repeatedly pouring warm water over
it to remove the bitter tasting tannic acid. Then it was mixed with more water, then boiled by
adding hot stones to the basket. The resulting mush, or šipitiš, was the main source of starch in
the Island Chumash diet.
The relative scarcity of oaks created a need for Island Chumash to find substitutes to supplement
short supplies of acorns. One of the most important alternatives was Island Cherry, (Prunus
ilicifolia), or islay. Called ‘akhtayukhash by the Chumash, Island Cherry is extra large,
abundant, and produces no spines. The sweet fruit has a large seed that was boiled into a mush,
and pulpy flesh that was molded into balls that could be easily carried on long trips.
The fruit of the prickly pear (Opuntia occidentalis), was also available on the islands. The thorns
of the cactus, called qi by the Chumash, were used as needles for tatooing. The prickly pear still
thrives on the Channel Islands today, and may be seen in dry, seemingly barren canyons on Santa
Red maids (Calandrinia ciliata) seeds called pil or hutash, are sometimes found in archeological
sites, buried in caches of up to 12 quarts! Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) berries, Chia (Salvia
columbariae), or ‘I’lepesh, and red maids seeds were pounded or ground, then cooked into mush
or molded into small cakes.
Bulbs and tubers were also an important source of starch in the Chumash diet. Brodiaea
(Dichelostemma pulchellum) or blue dick, called cacomites by the Chumash, took the place that
yucca held in the mainland diet. Large quantities of bulbs were gathered in early summer, dug
up with a pointed stick, sometimes attached to a digging stick weight. These weights, also
known as “donut stones” are found in many island archeological sites. Three or four families
would harvest large quantities of cacomites, which were roasted between layers of coal and ashes
in large pits, then equal shares were distributed to each family.
Other edible wild plants that do not require elaborate preparation, such as wild clover, various
sea weeds, or mushrooms were also available to add flavor and, incidentally, vitamins.
“Throw Another Abalone on the Barbeque”
Beginning in 1542, historical accounts portrayed the Channel Island Indians as so poor that they
had nothing to eat but fish! One can only surmise that these early chroniclers were misinformed
or not very observant.
Island Chumash had a remarkable variety of protein available for food: sea mammals, fish, and
shellfish found along coastlines, intertidal zones and offshore; birds and their eggs were found on
all the northern islands, as well as tiny Santa Barbara Island. Mainland protein sources such as
deer, were traded across the Channel. Researchers point to sea mammal bone in sites in the
Santa Ynez valley, and deer bone in island sites as evidence of this trade system.
Indeed, the abundant marine resources were likely what attracted the first islanders to these
islands. Much lower sea levels at the end of the Pleistocene (about 10,000 years ago) meant the
distance to the islands was much shorter than today. Some very old island sites contain bone
from sea mammals such as sea otter (Enhydra lutris) and harbor seal (Phoca vitulina). San
Miguel Island, one of the largest sea mammal rookeries in North American, was a major
attraction for early Americans searching for food.
The sea also provided literally hundreds of species of fish, from tiny anchovies (Engraulis sp.)
to swordfish weighing hundreds of pounds. Small fish were caught using nets, while larger
species found among the kelp beds or further offshore required more sophisticated tools. Bone
gorges, designed to stick in a fish’s throat, are found in many early sites. Burned fish bones are
found along with the bone gorges in archeological sites dating to earliest island occupation.
Later, shiny fishhooks were fashioned out of abalone or mussel shell to catch rockfish (Sebastes
carnatus), sheepshead (Pimelotopon pulchrum), and sea bass (Serranidae sp.). Baracuda and
other large fish were harpooned from boats (including the uniquely constructed Chumash
tomols) offshore.
Sea otter, ‘olqo’os to the Chumash, sea lion, and other sea mammals were hunted from tomols
with bone-barbed harpoons, or snared with nets when the animals hauled-out onto the beach.
These animals provided not only protein, but were a rich source of essential fat missing from a
diet based on fish and plants foods. Then, about 500 years ago, the island Chumash began using
bow and arrow to hunt sea otter.
The Channel Islands are an important stop over for many migrating birds, as well as home to
many more species. We see from their remains in archeological sites that many species of birds
were captured by islanders, for meat, eggs and not incidentally, bone and feathers. Lightweight
bird bone made wonderful whistles and delicate ornaments, and we know from historic
descriptions that whole skins of the cormorant, or mut in the Chumash language, were used to
make clothing.
Visitors to the islands will find the most obvious evidence of ancient Chumash are the vast
expanses of tiny, shiny pieces of broken shell. These shell middens (areas of kitchen refuse)
provide a wealth of information about Chumash life. We know, for instance that black abalone
(haliotis cracherodii.) was a favorite food, as well as providing shell for bowls, fishooks and
bead decorations. Islanders used whalebone “prybars” to break the abalone away from the rocks.
California mussel (mytilus californiaus) was also gathered from the rocky inter-tidal zone, and is
found in nearly every midden on the islands. Other favorite foods required more effort: red
abalone live in rocky sub-tidal zones, thus we know the Chumash were adept divers in the chilly
waters of the Channel. The variety of shellfish found in island middens is much broader than the
number of shellfish types we commonly eat today: various species of limpet (collisella sp.),
barnacles (balanus sp.) and turban snails (tegula sp.) were cooked into flavorful stews; clams,
giant chiton (Cryptochiton stelleri), wavy top. Roe of the purple sea urchin (strongylocentrotus
purpuratus) was served much the same as it is in gourmet restaurants today: raw!
On your next visit to on of the islands, look for and Island Cherry or try to identify little red
maids or blue dick flowers. Consider how many cherries or red maid seeds it might take to make
a meal! When you are on the rocky shore and spy a purple sea urchin or a cluster of California
mussels, imagine gathering a basketful of shellfish for your evening meal. The Island Chumash
“cupboard” certainly was not bare, we just need to look all around us to see what plentiful and
delicious foods they enjoyed.
Secrets of Chumash Social Life
By John R. Johnson, Ph.D.
Why did the Chumash chiefs marry differently than other people in their society? Why did men
who were chiefs have more than one wife, while others were monogamous? Why did most
Chumash men move to their wife's community while the chief's wives followed their husband?
Why did chiefs' families intermarry and why did their spouses often come from distant towns?
These are some of the questions that have been raised through studies of Chumash social
organization over the past decade.
When the Chumash Indians were first contacted by Europeans, they lived in a society that
differed sharply from the one to which the newcomers were accustomed. Rather than possessing
a national identity, the basic units of Chumash society were independent towns and villages.
Sometimes a particularly effective chief would have authority over several towns, but he was by
no means all-powerful. While the basis for his leadership may partly have been determined by
birth, it was more dependent on personality, the ability to control certain economic activities, and
success in creation of alliances with other chiefs.
Unfortunately, no fully-detailed descriptions of the social and political workings of Chumash
society were written down during the Spanish Period. Several generations were to pass before
anthropologists like John P. Harrington began to unveil the Chumash past through ethnographic
investigations. By this time, pre-European social and political patterns had long been forgotten.
Although the Franciscan missionaries did not describe Chumash social life, the meticulous
records they kept of Indian baptisms and marriages at each mission comprise a remarkable
source of information for anthropological research. Over the past two decades, I have
systematically collected data contained in the mission records to study Chumash marriage and
family patterns. From this effort has emerged a regional view of how Chumash economic and
political relations were reinforced through intermarriage.
A highly significant piece of information obtained from the study of mission register data is that
the Chumash practiced matrilocal residence: that is, the husband would usually move to his
wife's community upon marriage and live among her relatives. The discovery that the Chumash
were matrilocal was unexpected, because anthropologists had previously believed the Chumash
to be partilocal like neighboring cultural groups who surrounded them at the time of European
Chumash chiefs were different than the rest of their society in the way they married and where
they lived after marriage. This summer I was invited to attend an Institute in Comparative
Anthropological Research sponsored by the National Science Foundation. This gave me the
opportunity to pursue research in marriage patterns of political leaders in the 14% of the world's
cultures that practice matrilocal residence. I discovered that the Chumash were not unique-chiefs in other matrilocal societies often deviated from the general population in their marriage
habits. In the majority of cases I studied, chiefs would bring their wives to reside with them
when they ascended to political office. In most societies with matrilocal residence, polygamy
was limited to chiefs only. This contrasted with polygamy in patrilocal societies, where any man
could accumulate wives based on his ability to support them.
It would seem, therefore, that living with one's wife's relatives, as is the case with matrilocal
societies, is the major factor determining what kind of polygamy is allowed. Chiefs vary from
the rest of society, not only because they usually live among their own relatives, but also because
their authority is partly based on economic and political alliances that can be built through
marrying additional wives from other chiefs' families. Throughout the world, marriage practices
tend to influence other aspects of cultural behavior. Understanding Chumash marriage and
family patterns will allow us to further our knowledge about a culture whose history is still being
[Originally published in Bulletin of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, No. 188,
November & December 1996, p. 1]
Weathering an Environmental Crisis?
The presence of a small clam in Indian middens is providing the first archaeological clues to a
possible environmental crisis suffered by the Chumash Indians about eight centuries ago. A
major drought hit much of the American Southwest between AD 1150 and AD 1300, evidenced
by lowered lake levels and narrow tree-ring growth bands. Populous pueblos in such places as
Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon were abandoned during this period. Archaeological evidence is
accumulating to demonstrate that California Indians suffered as well. Some Chumash villages
seem to have been abandoned or relocated during this time, and social disruption and warfare
increased among the people.
Detailed study of marine sediment cores from the Santa Barbara Channel reveals a past record of
sea temperatures that covers thousands of years. During the drought on the mainland that began
about A.D. 1150, a significant warming of local ocean waters may have led to the collapse of
marine resources on which the Chumash depended for their livelihood. Archaeologists have
previously documented major changes in Chumash culture around this period.
For the past seven years, the Museum's anthropology staff and volunteers have been carefully
sorting and analyzing archaeological samples excavated at Shuku, a former village at Rincon
Point, to shed light on changes in Chumash life during the 2,000 years preceding European
contact. In addition to sharks and rays, which were a major component in Chumash diet, the
residents of Shuku were also very fond of shellfish species such as mussel, pismo clam, and
littleneck clam. It is the presence of Donax gouldii, a small clam which reaches its northern limit
in the Santa Barbara region, that has caused much excitement among archaeologists. It provides
the first archaeological marker that correlates marine sediment core studies with discoveries at an
archaeological site. The clam is an excellent indicator of warm water events and its abundance in
certain excavated samples appears to signal the extreme warming of sea temperatures that
occurred about eight centuries ago. The discovery also suggests that changing environmental
conditions forced the Chumash to modify their diet in addition to relocating their villages.
[Originally published in Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Annual Report 1995, pp. 2-3]
Island Life from Long Ago
By John R. Johnson, Ph.D.
Based on archaeological evidence, it appears that American Indians first arrived on the Channel
Islands at the end of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. At the time they encountered
conditions much different than exist today. The islands were united in one mega-island, called
Santarosae by geologists (see Fall 1993 Alolkoy), which was much closer to the mainland than
the present chain.
The climate was cooler, and an extensive pine forest covered much of the islands. Pygmy
elephants once roamed there, having evolved from imperial mammoths that swam the Channel.
Were the first people to arrive on the Channel Islands the ancestors of the Native American
group that we know today as the Chumash? More than 10 millennia passed before Europeans
first encountered the Chumash islanders; conceivably population migrations and replacements
took place during the intervening centuries.
At the time Spanish settlement began in the late 18th century, there were an estimated 3,000
islanders. They spoke a Chumash language akin to that spoken on the mainland, yet as distantly
related as English is to German. This indicates many centuries of separation as distinct language
"Chumash" is a term used by anthropologists to designate not one tribe but rather a family of
related Indian languages spoken in south central California.
The name was derived from the word 'anchum, which meant "bead money," because the
Chumash islanders manufactured the Olivella shell disc beads that circulated as a medium of
exchange throughout much of southern California.
In the early 19th century, Spanish missionaries reported the existence of 10 Chumash towns on
Santa Cruz Island, seven on Santa Rosa, and two on San Miguel. Anacapa Island was not
permanently inhabited but was visited for ceremonies and to collect shellfish. Only the largest
island towns had chiefs, and one of the towns on Santa Cruz Island was governed by a chief who
was recognized as having authority over the other chiefs of the island.
The largest of the island towns may have been composed of 50 domed houses, thatched with
seagrass, which held from four to seven people each. The chief's house was the largest and
served also as a meeting place for the village leaders. The smallest island towns only consisted of
a few households.
Most island men were fishermen. They built sewn plank boats caulked with tar for fishing and
transportation. Ethnographic evidence suggests that canoemen belonged to a special guild that
cut across village affiliation, called the Brotherhood of the Canoe.
The chief, by means of his wealth, seems to have subsidized the making of shell bead money,
perhaps by older people, which was then exchanged for resources and manufactured items from
mainland towns that were unattainable on the island.
Women collected plant foods and shellfish and wove baskets used as containers and for cooking.
Women held a high rank in Chumash society and sometimes became chiefs. Chumash traditional
history records that a princess was the first to unify all the villages on Santa Cruz Island into one
political group.
Usually men moved to their wife's town when they married. This fact may be determined by
reconstruction of family patterns in baptismal and marriage records kept by the missionaries.
What happened to the Chumash after the Mission Period ended in 1834 is the subject of another
[Originally published in Alolkoy: The Publication of the Channel Islands National Marine
Sanctuary, Vol. 7, No. 4, Winter 1995, pp. 3-5]
Modern Techniques Offer Clues to the Past
Curator of Anthropology Dr. John Johnson has a reputation for asking hair-raising questions.
Over the past five years, John has collected more than 100 hair follicle samples as part of his
research into the genetic relationships among California Indian tribes belonging to different
linguistic families.
Before European contact, California had one of the most diverse populations of Native
Americans anywhere in the country. Over 60 different languages were spoken within a vast
patchwork of different cultural groups. How closely were these groups related to one another?
Did intermarriage result in genetic similarities or did some populations maintain their genetic
distinctions? How can such questions from the past be answered today?
Found in the chromosomes of all living cells, nuclear deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) transmits
hereditary information from parents to children. Outside the nucleus of the cell exist
mitochondria that convert food to energy and also contain a DNA molecule which is inherited
only along female lines, mother to daughter. By examining the mitochondrial DNA of Chumash
living today, John hopes to gather clues regarding the genetic prehistory of the Chumash Indians
who lived in south central California and determine if they were genetically distinct from other
neighboring tribes.
John has collaborated with Dr. Joseph Lorenz at the Genetic Testing Laboratory in Colorado.
Emerging from their work are a few tantalizing glimpses of Chumash genetic ancestry. The vast
majority of American Indians belong to four mitochondrial groups (A through D) known as
clades. A clade is a group of related genetic lineages that descend from a common ancestor. The
founding populations of the Americas appear to have been relatively small and to have originated
in Asia. The same four clades present among Native Americans are still found in East Asia.
Working with Chumash descendants whose family ancestries were established through Mission
records and other sources, John located 13 surviving mitochondrial lineages. With permission
from descendants, hair follicle samples were first screened to see into which clade they would
fall. The results indicate that three Chumash samples within Clade A may be traced back to
women living in widely separated villages at the time of Spanish contact. Although they differed
slightly, these three Chumash lineages were more closely related to each other than to any other
Clade A lineages in the Americas.
John's research provides a window into the past through which we see the first hint of genetic
relationships among Chumash populations. The slight degree of variation in mitochondrial
lineages may be the result of slowly accumulating genetic change over a long period of time. If
this initial observation is supported by further research, it attests to great antiquity for Chumash
presence within the Santa Barbara region.
[Originally published in Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Annual Report 1995, pp. 2-3]
What was the Fate of the Chumash Islanders?
By John R. Johnson, Ph.D.
From the outset of Spanish colonization of upper California in 1769, the government moved
slowly in its attempts to "missionize" the Chumash islanders. The Viceroy of New Spain,
Francisco Carlos de Croix, wrote Friar Junipero Serra that the Indians were not to be transferred
to mainland missions, in part because their presence prevented other nations from settling off the
California coast.
Forty-five years passed before the islanders joined their linguistic relatives at missions
established on the mainland. By that time their numbers had been greatly diminished because of
disease epidemics. In particular, the measles outbreak of 1806 may have taken the lives of onefifth or more of the northern Channel Islands' population.
The immediate cause for the massive wave of migration of islanders to the mainland missions in
1814-1816 was apparently related to food shortages. These years were characterized by a major
El Niño event, probably the most severe experienced in the 180 years since then. The influx of
significantly warmer waters into the Santa Barbara Channel would have adversely affected the
fishery surrounding the islands.
Indications of this are reflected in the correspondence of a missionary stationed at San
Buenaventura, who reported that famine conditions existed on the islands by 1816. By then there
were no native mainland towns with which the islanders could trade to offset their shortfall.
The missions' dependable supply of agricultural produce seemed an attractive choice to islanders
greatly reduced in numbers and beset by hunger. More than 90 percent of the remaining islanders
joined the mission communities by the end of 1816. A few remained in their traditional homes,
but in 1822 the last of these reunited with families already living at the missions.
When large numbers of Chumash islanders arrived in this period, they were not immediately
integrated into established mission Indian communities. By then, the mainland population had
become acculturated to Spanish lifeways.
Cultural boundaries between the mainland and island subpopulations at mission communities
were reinforced by linguistic distinctiveness that existed between their respective populations.
Evidence for their existence mostly comes to us from anthropologist John Harrington's early 20th
century interviews with elderly Chumash Indians. One 1824 manuscript in the Santa Barbara
Mission Archives mentions that some islanders were living adjacent to the Goleta estuary when
the Chumash Revolt broke out. They fled in their canoes to the islands, where they resided for
some months before returning to the mainland.
This mainland settlement of islanders was located on More Mesa. It was called Qwa', the
Chumash name for a species of heron. Its leader was Jose Crespin ("Sudon") Kamuliyatset, the
former chief of Santa Cruz Island's capital village of Liyam.
At San Buenaventura, another settlement composed mostly of islanders was formed in postmission times. This was Kamexmey, established just west of the mouth of the Ventura River by
Evaristo, a native of Swaxil, once the largest town on Santa Cruz Island.
The Kamexmey community seems to have persisted until the 1860's, when the last of its
residents died. Similar communities also existed at missions La Purisma (Lompoc) and Santa
Ines (Solvang), which were composed of Santa Rosa and San Miguel island families.
The existence of residential subgroups of islanders within the larger Indian community at each
mission preserved aspects of traditional island society that mirrored pre-European conditions.
These settlements featured tule houses, sweatlodges (temescals), acorn granaries, and other
traditional shelters. Traditional economic activities, such as fishing, canoe-building, and bead
money-making also took place. Shrines, where offerings were made, were located near these
communities, and pre-European rituals and ceremonies were revived and maintained.
Because of high infant mortality, the Chumash population continued to decline after the Mission
Period to the end of the 19th century. Eventually the Chumash subgroups combined through
intermarriage, but island Chumash lineages have persisted and may be traced in many family
trees of modern descendants of the original people to inhabit the Channel region.
[Originally published in Alolkoy: The Publication of the Channel Islands National Marine
Sanctuary, Vol. 7, No. 4, Winter 1995, pp. 6-7
The Swordfish in Chumash Prehistory
By John R. Johnson, Ph.D.
The fascination that the swordfish held for the Chumash is well documented in myth, art, oral
history, and material culture. The Swordfish Dance was an important part of Chumash
ceremonies and at least three rock art sites contain explicit depictions of this species. Swordfish
remains are found frequently in archaeological sites along the Santa Barbara Channel, and
certain nonedible parts of the fish's anatomy were modified for both ceremonial and utilitarian
purposes. New studies based on museum collections help us reconstruct the prehistory of the
Chumash swordfish fishery and correlate its development with technological and environmental
According to Chumash tradition, all the creatures of the sea had counterparts on the land. For
example, the Chumash considered the sardine to be like the lizard; and the lobster, like the
Jerusalem cricket ("potato bug"). People venerated the swordfish as "people of the sea" --marine
equivalents of human beings. They believed swordfish drove whales ashore to provide plentiful
food for the people on land. Marine biological literature documents that a factual basis lies
behind this Chumash legend, because there are reports around the world of swords embedded in
stranded whales.
Frequently both swordfish skeletal remains and finished artifacts manufactured from these
remains have been recovered from archaeological sites throughout the Santa Barbara Channel
region. The Chumash modified swords, vertebrae, and vertebral spines for digging implements,
cups, and needles. They made headdresses from the swordfish cranium and decorated with
abalone ornaments for dances.
Swordfish remains first appeared in 2,000-year-old archaeological deposits in the Santa Barbara
region. Prior to this time, they have been notably absent in collections from both island and
mainland sites. The advent of successful Chumash swordfishing appears simultaneously with
two technological innovations: the plank boat (or tomol) which allowed for greater mobility and
speed and the barbed harpoon foreshaft that could be thrust into the fish when it "basked" near
the surface in calm waters.
It seems logical that most finds of swordfish skeletal parts might be recovered in island and
mainland deposits nearest the places known today as the best fishing areas, but the data only
partially support this expectation. The distribution of archaeological sites containing swordfish
remains extends beyond the current area of the most productive fishery. According to
commercial fishermen, swordfish today rarely enter the main part of the Santa Barbara Channel,
yet their remains have been recovered from many prehistoric coastal middens between Ventura
and Gaviota.
Climatic changes may account for the differences between the archaeological record and modern
observations. Based on analyses of sediment cores, the reconstructed sea temperature curve for
the Santa Barbara Basin shows that channel waters have been cooler during the most recent 900
years than they were during the preceding millennium. Most swordfish remains in the Santa
Barbara Museum of Natural History collection are from archaeological sites dating between
2,000 and 900 years ago when sea temperatures were mostly warmer in the channel. This
discovery illustrates how archaeological finds may provide additional information about past
environmental conditions as well as illuminate Chumash cultural history.
[Originally published in Alolkoy: The Publication of the Channel Islands National Marine
Sanctuary, Vol. 6, No. 1, Summer 1993, p. 6]
The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island
Article by Jan Timbrook
Few figures in California history have the enduring appeal of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas
Island. Every year hundreds of schoolchildren read Scott O'Dell's fictional account, Island of the
Blue Dolphins, and many people contact the Museum for information about the Lone Woman.
Her story embodies the demise of native peoples and traditions following Spanish and American
In the early 1800's, Russian and Aleut sea otter hunters clashed violently with Indian people
living on remote San Nicolas Island. The mission padres requested that these Indians be moved
to the mainland for their own safety, and in 1835 a schooner was sent to pick them up.
As the ship was being loaded, a woman discovered her child had been left in the village and went
back to find it. Meanwhile a strong wind arose. The ship was forced to sail and the woman was
abandoned on the island, her child apparently killed by wild dogs. The schooner was unable to
go back for her, and she spent eighteen years alone on the barren, windswept island. She never
saw her fellow islanders again.
In 1853 when she had been all but forgotten, a party headed by sea otter hunter George Nidever
found the Indian woman alive and well on San Nicolas. Clad in a dress of cormorant skins sewn
together, she lived in a shelter made from whale bones. She was pleased to see her rescuers and
willingly went with them, bringing along only a few possessions--water baskets, bone needles,
and the feathered dress.
Nidever brought her home to live with him and his wife in Santa Barbara, where she caused quite
a sensation. She enjoyed the company of the steady stream of visitors who came to see her. No
one, including the local Chumash Indians, could understand her language, which was related to
that of native peoples in the Los Angeles area.
In town, the new living conditions and altered diet affected the woman's health. She contracted
dysentery and died after she had been on the mainland for only seven weeks. The Lone Woman
was baptized conditionally with the Christian name Juana Maria (her Indian name is unknown)
and buried in an unmarked grave at Mission Santa Barbara.
It was said that the mission priest sent her feathered dress to Rome, but researchers have found
no indication that it was ever received by the Vatican Museum. The 1906 San Francisco
earthquake and fire destroyed the woman's water basket and bone needles, which were part of the
collections of a museum there. Now only memories remain of the Lone Woman and her tragic
Jan Timbrook is Senior Associate Curator of Anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of
Natural History.
Frequently Asked Questions
• What can you tell me about the 'Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island' and her tribe?
The Island of San Nicolas was home to a people who spoke a language in the Uto-Aztecan
Linguistic Family. This family of languages was widespread in California, the Great Basin, the
American Southwest and down into Central Mexico. The Indians of San Nicolas were not related
to the Chumash of the Northern Channel Islands, but they traded with them.
The last Indians on San Nicolas Island were removed in the mid 1830s, except for the Lone
Woman. She was discovered about 1853 and was taken to Santa Barbara. The Chumash Indians
there could not understand her language. She died within a few weeks from dysentery. She was
given the Spanish name, Juana Maria, by one of the priests at Santa Barbara Mission. There are
several books and historical articles that describe what is factually known about the Lone
Woman. The book, Original Accounts of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, edited by
Robert Heizer and Albert Elsasser, may be available through a College or University Library in
your area.
• Where did Chumash Indians live?
The Chumash Indians lived along the coast, in adjacent inland valleys, and also on the Northern
Channel Islands between the town of Malibu and northward to about Paso Robles. They lived in
about 150 independent towns with a total population of about 18,000 people speaking several
related but mutually unintelligible languages. Their neighbors were the Gabrielino (Tongva) on
the south, the Tataviam (Alliklik) on the southeast, the Yokuts on the east, and the Salinan on the
• How did the Chumash build their houses?
The Chumash used tule or bulrush (Scirpus sp.) as thatching for their houses ('ap). Willow and
sycamore were used for the frame. These domed houses were quite spacious, 30 feet or more in
diameter (not simply small huts, as they are sometimes inaccurately portrayed). On the Channel
Islands, seagrass (Phyllospadix sp.) was gathered from tidepools and used as thatching instead of
tule. For further information and pictures, consult Vol. 2 of The Material Culture of the Chumash
Interaction Sphere by Travis Hudson and Thomas Blackburn (see Recommended Publications or
for ordering information see Anthropology Publications for Sale).
• What kinds of weapons, hunting tools, and fishing gear did the Chumash Indians use?
The Chumash used the bow and arrow for their weapons. The bow and arrow began to be used
by them about 1,500 years ago. Before that, they used the spear thrower. They also used a
harpoon with a detachable foreshaft for spearing large fish. They made curved, circular
fishhooks from abalone and mussel shells for catching smaller fish. Their most famous
manufactured item was their canoe (called tomol) made from pieces of driftwood that were
worked into planks and sewn together with cordage made from the hemp plant. The seams
between the planks were sealed together with tar that was gathered from oil seeps.
• What tool was the most important one for the Chumash?
It is hard to say which tool was most important, because so many tools were used in their daily
lives and all were useful. One of the most important tools was their plank canoe called the
"tomol." Tomols were used in ocean-fishing and to travel back and forth between coastal towns.
These watercraft also were very important in trade between the islands and mainland.
• How many people could fit in a canoe?
The typical canoe, called "tomol," held three people.
• How long did the canoes last?
We don't really know how long their canoes might last after they built them. It probably
depended on how often they were used an how much wear and tear they experienced. The last
Chumash tomols used for fishing were made about 1850. In 1913, an elderly Chumash man,
Fernando Librado, made a tomol for an anthropologist, John P. Harrington, to show how they
were built. He had seen the last tomols being built when he was a young man. This boat is now
on exhibit in the Indian Hall at our museum. In the past twenty years several Chumash tomols
have been made using John Harrington's notes to guide their construction.
• What was their money made out of?
The bead money was usually made from small disks shaped from the Olivella shell (also called
the Purple Olive, a marine snail). The Indians who lived on the Channel Islands specialized in
making the bead money. They were the "mint" for the Chumash Indians who lived on the
mainland. The name Chumash comes form the name that the mainland Indians gave to the island
Indians. Chumash and 'anchum' are related words, apparently Chumash originally meant
somehething like 'bead money makers'.
• What was their money worth?
The value of the money depended on the labor invested to make it and the rarity of the shell that
was used. The disk beads made from the callus (the thick part of the shell near its opening) were
worth twice as much as the disk beads made from the wall of the shell, because many more
beads could be made from the wall, so they were less rare. They would measure a strand of beads
according to how many spans of a person's hand it would wrap around.
• How long did Chumash Indians live?
Their lives were not as long as ours. The average life expectancy may have only been about 35,
or even less, although mission records document that some elders survived into their 70s and
80s. After California became a Spanish colony, diseases were introduced that had a devastating
effect on the Chumash, especially on very young children. Not too many people survived
childhood, so the Chumash population declined rapidly. The worst epidemic of the Mission
Period was a measles epidemic in the winter of 1806. It took many lives all up and down
California. The Chumash had never experienced measles before the coming of the Europeans, so
it was a deadly disease to them.
• Were there doctors?
The Chumash had several kinds of doctors. They believed that disease resulted from problems
with a person's spiritual state, so they concentrated on healing the spirit. More information about
Chumash medicinal practices are contained in a book, Chumash Healing (see Recommended
Publications or for ordering information see Anthropology Publications for Sale).
• What was the Chumash Indians medicine made out of?
Many kinds of plants were used to make medicines. One of the most powerful was called
chuchupate. It was a root in the Carrot Family that grew high in the mountains. It was chewed to
give a person strength and ward off disease.
• What does the medicine look, feel, taste and smell like?
There were many kinds of medicine. Besides bark, roots, and flowers of various kinds of plants,
minerals were sometimes ground up and used by mixing with animal fat. Sea water was used as a
purgative to clean the digestive system. Certain kinds of treatment required swallowing live red
The Rainbow Bridge
The Chumash people have a very rich repertoire of stories and legends. Stories are a very
important way to tech Chumash morals and ethics, and provide entertainment, for both children
and adults. One of the most popular Chumash stories is the story of a rainbow bridge.
The first Chumash people were created on Santa Cruz Island. They were made from seeds of a
Magic Plant by the Earth Goddess, whose name was Hutash.
Hutash was married to the Sky Snake, the Milky Way. He could make lightning bolts with his
tongue. One day he decided to make a gift to the Chumash people. He sent down a bolt of
lightning, and this started a fire. After this, people kept fires burning so that they could keep
warm, and so that they could cook their food.
In those days, the Condor was a white bird. But the Condor was very curious about the fire he
saw burning in the Chumash village. He wanted to find out what it was. So he flew very low
over the fire to get a better look. But he flew too close; he got his feathers scorched and they
turned black. So now the Condor is a black bird, with just a little white left under the wings
where they didn’t get burned.
After Sky Snake gave them fire, the Chumash people lived more comfortably. More people
were born each year, and their villages got bigger and bigger. Santa Cruz Island was getting
crowded. And the noise people made was starting to annoy Hutash. It kept her awake at night.
So, finally, she decided that some of the Chumash had to move off the island. They would have
to go to the Mainland, where there weren’t any people living in those days.
But how were the people going to get across the water to the Mainland? Finally, Hutash had the
idea of making a bridge out of a rainbow. She made a very long, very high rainbow which
stretched from the tallest mountain on Santa Cruz Island all the way to the tall mountains near
Hutash told the people to go across the Rainbow Bridge, and fill the whole world with people.
So the Chumash people started to go across the bridge. Some of them got across safely, but
some people made the mistake of looking down. It was a long way down to the water, and the
fog was swirling around. They got so dizzy that some of them fell off the Rainbow Bridge,
down, through the fog into the ocean. Hutash felt very bad about this, because she told them to
cross the bridge. She didn’t want them to drown. Instead, she turned them into dolphins. So the
Chumash always said that dolphins were there brothers.
Anderson, Jr., Eugene N. The Chumash Indians of Southern California, Malki Museum
Press, Banning, California, 1968. Condensed overview of Chumash culture, with black
and white photos and illustrations.
Blackburn, Thomas C. December’s Child, University of California Press, Berkeley/Los
Angeles, California, 1975. Chumash oral narratives/legends, with few black and white
photos and illustrations.
Cunningham, Richard W. California Indian Watercraft, EZ Nature Books, San Luis
Obispo, California, 1989. Construction and use of CA Indian watercraft.
Eargle, Jr., Dolan H. The Earth Is Our Mother, Trees Company Press, San Francisco,
California, 1986. A guide to the Indians of California, their locales and historic
sights, with color and black and white photos and illustrations.
Gibson, Robert O. The Chumash, Chelsea House Publishers, New York, New York,
1991. Overview of Chumash culture, with color and black and white photos,
Glassow, Michael A. Archaeology on the Northern Channel Islands, Coyote Press,
Salinas, California, 1993. Edited studies of Chumash subsistence, economics and social
Grant, Campbell. The Rock Paintings of the Chumash, EZ Nature Books, San Luis
Obispo, California, 1965. Chumash rock art, with color and black and white photos and
Heizer, Robert F. and Elsasser, Albert B. The Natural World of the California Indians,
University of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles, California, 1980. Overview of
California Indian tribes, with color and black and white photos.
Hudson, Travis and Underhay, Ernest. Crystals in the Sky, Ballena Press, Socorro, New
Mexico, 1978. Chumash astronomy, cosmology and rock art with black and
white photos and illustrations.
Lee, Rebecca Lawrence. Kori and the Island of Enchantment, Fithian Press, Santa
Barbara, California, 1990. Historical fiction about sailor from Cabrillo’s ship
with the Chumash of Santa Cruz Island.
Margolin, Malcolm. The Way We Lived, Heyday Books, Berkeley, California, 1981.
CA Indian overview; stories and narratives from many CA Indian cultures.
McCall, Lynne and Perry, Rosalind. California’s Chumash Indians, EZ Nature Books, San
Luis Obispo, California, 1986. Overview of Chumash culture with black and
white photos,
McCall, Lynne and Perry, Rosalind. The Chumash People, EZ Nature Books, San Luis
Obispo, California, 1982. Materials for teachers and students, with black and
Miller, Bruce W. Chumash, A Picture of Their World, Sand River Press, Los Osos,
California, 1988. Overview of Chumash culture with, black and white photos.
Moore, Reavis. Native Artists of North America, John Muir Publications, Santa Fe, New
Mexico, 1993. Overview of Native American artists, with color photos and
Nechodom, Kerry. The Rainbow Bridge, Sand River Press, Los Osos, California, 1992.
Stylized version of Chumash legend, with color illustrations.
O’Dell, Scott. Zia, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., New York, New
York, 1976. Historical fiction about rescue of Karana (Island of the Blue
Dolphins) from San Nicolas Island.
O’Dell, Scott. Island of the Blue Dolphins, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group,
Inc., New York, New York, 1960. Historical fiction of the life of Karana, the
“lone woman” of San Nicolas Island.
Oliver, Rice D. Lone Woman of Ghalas-Hat, California Weekly Explorer, Inc., Tustin
California, 1993. Historic story of Juana Maria, the lone woman of San Nicolas Island.
Sanger, Kay. When The Animals Were People, Malki Museum Press, Banning, California,
1983. Simplified Chumash legends, with black and white illustrations.
Spizzirri, Linda. California Indians, Spizzirri Publishing Co., Rapid City, South Dakota, 1986.
An educational read and color book.
Walker, Philip L. And Hudson, Travis. Chumash Healing, Malki Museum, Inc., Banning,
California, 1993. Changing health and medical practices in Chumash
Wilcox, John. The Chumash Through a Child’s Eyes, Shoreline Press, Santa Barbara,
California, 1997. Illustrated comparison of Chumash and modern day life.
Wood, Audrey. The Rainbow Bridge, Harcourt Brace and Company, San Diego, California,
1995. Stylized version of Chumash legend, with color photos and illustrations.