California's first oceanographers: The Chumash Indians

In studying past cultures and especially early California cultures, it strikes me how little we know about the science of these people. As we'll learn in our discussion of the Polynesians, these ocean-going cultures sure knew what they were doing when it came to the ocean. They were able to navigate using clouds and waves and sea birds and they knew when and where particular marine species could be found. In some areas, their knowledge of the sea surpasses our own, especially in their ability to observe a complex ocean landscape and interpret the underlying processes. For that reason, I've dubbed these early people as the first oceanographers. By all definitions of the word they qualify as oceanographers (and then some)!

chumashtomol.jpg (17420 bytes)The first California oceanographers can be found among the Chumash Indians. In fact, any of the California coastal tribes, including the Gabrielino who occupied areas between Pt. Conception and Dana Point, could claim this honor. But archaeological evidence of Chumash people predates any other culture, so they title belongs to them for the time being.

Now before I go any further, let me state emphatically that I am not an expert on indigenous people. My exposition here is intended to make you aware of the incredible skills these people possessed for oceangoing. There are currently many controversial issues surrounding the preservation and rights of their lands and culture and I support those discussions. If by some chance something here appears inaccurate or misleading, then by all means e-mail me. Indigenous cultures and their relationship with the sea is one of my favorite topics and I am happy to stand corrected on any account!

We start our story of the first oceanographers with some speculation as to how they got here. The traditional hypothesis is that early cultures walked across the Bering Sea land bridge and moved southwards soon after the last ice age (~10,000 years ago). However, new evidence gathered in the Channel Islands and elsewhere suggests that the first inhabitants may have arrived by boat.

Evidence for the nautical colonization of the Americas comes from Santa Rosa Island, known to the Chumash as Wimat. It was here that Chumash legend says that the world began. And in mid-1999, after re-evaluation of a buried female skeleton found on the island, it appears that Wimat indeed may be the original site of North America's first inhabitants. Based on radiocarbon dating techniques, the Arlington Woman, as she is known, appears to have lived at least 13,000 years ago. That makes her the oldest skeleton ever found in North America. It also means that she lived there during the end of the last ice age, which lasted from 125,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Although ice sheets did not extend along the coast of California, they did occur inland and to the North. Recognition of the age of the Arlington Woman casts doubts on a strictly terrestrial migration of people from Asia. The question is: how did people arrive in North America previous to the disappearance of the ice sheets?

A scholarly symposium held in Oregon in August 1998 provided intriguing evidence and speculation that people arrived in North America on boats from Asia. One scholar discusses the "terrestrial bias" implying that archaeologists and anthropologists have a prejudice towards land-based theories. But anyone who has lived any reasonable time on the coast realizes that coastal climates are moderate. And the presence of ice certainly wouldn't have dissuaded any people who were probably  accustomed to living in icy environments. So in my simple-minded estimation, what's the fuss? It seems like a perfectly reasonable hypothesis as long as there is evidence to support it.

However they arrived, the Chumash (and the Gabrielinos, or Tongva, to the south) were well-accomplished shipbuilders. Their boats, called tomols, measured upwards of 30 feet, held up to 12 people and were built from redwood planks sealed with natural substances including asphaltum, a naturally occurring tar found on California's rocky shores. Their tomols connected them with a vast partnership of tribes and sub-tribes that stretched across California. They brought trade, kinship and mutual respect for natural resources. The tomols connected the people with the sea and its animals. They provided a living, physically and spiritually.

In recent years, people have come to realize the importance of preserving this cultural maritime heritage. The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, in cooperation with the Chumash Maritime Association, recently completed construction of a tomols, the first built in centuries. Much of the difficulty in building such boats lies not just in a lack of recent knowledge but a lack of materials. Many of the traditional components of such ships have been destroyed as estuaries and coastal environments were developed.

Roberta Reyes Cordero describes some of the materials required for building a tomol in a web essay published in News from Native California, Spring 1998:

We in California--the Chumash and Tongva--have had no less trouble obtaining materials and knowledge. Our ancestors were accustomed to gathering redwood drift logs from island and mainland beaches. Specialists cured, processed, and stored planks for use in building canoes. Pine was also used, but redwood was favored. Others were expert at gathering and processing plant fibers into the mile or so of cordage to be used along with yop (an epoxy-like mixture of asphaltum and pine pitch) to join the planks together. These three were the principal materials comprising the nail-less, peg-less tomol or ti'at, regarded by many cultural anthropologists as among the most advanced technological achievements of North America's indigenous peoples. Sharkskin for sanding, red ochre for staining, and abalone inlay for embellishment completed this work of high craftsmanship and art. [find complete article here]

The rich legacy and profound wisdom of California's first oceanographers is only beginning to be uncovered. Advances in marine archaeology, brought about by new technologies for observing the sea bottom, may hold promise for recovering some of this lost knowledge. Many of the oldest Chumash settlements, built before the end of the ice age, lie beneath the sea along our coast. As more people become aware of the importance of this cultural history, perhaps tomols may once again roam California's waters.

For more information on California's first oceanographers, check out these links:

Charting the Way Into the Americas
How humans might have come by sea, not land, to inhabit the New World
An scholoarly symposium in August 1998

Oakbrook Regional Park Chumash Interpretive Center (Thousand Oaks, CA)

The Chumash
A timeline of California's original seafarers
by Francis F. Steen, UCSB

California Tribes
by Paula Giese

Gabrielino Material Culture