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Home arrow Health arrow Bodies and Lives in Ancient America: Health Before Columbus

Cultural sketches of core areas in the U.S.

California coast

Human habitation has existed as far as can be discerned based on the current coastline for at least the last 13,000 years (Figure 1.5). Islands off the coast, such as the Channel Islands, tend to lack many animals and plants located on the mainland. The largest endemic land mammals on the Channel Islands are the island fox and a species of spotted skunk. During the Pleistocene, pygmy mammoth lived on the Northern Channel Islands. Europeans brought with them herbivores, carnivores, and rodents that are now found there (Rick et al. 2005: 171—173).

This region is distinct from the Southwest and Midwest portions of this volume in that the groups inhabiting the California coast never relied on agriculture as a form of subsistence. Tracing the arrival of groups to the coastal region can be difficult, as sea levels have risen substantially over the last 13,000 years (Inman 1983). It is possible that earlier settlements and campsites have been lost. Despite this challenge, sites have been identified dating to between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago on the Northern Channel Islands. The earliest securely dated Channel Island site dates to approximately 10,400 ± 200 years (approximately 12,340 years bp) (Orr 1962). Diet is believed to be primarily based on marine resources at this time.

Numerous early sites have been identified, and these include large habitation sites and shell middens consistent with this mode of subsistence (see table 2 in Rick et al. [2005] for a thorough listing of these sites and associated dates). Many of these early sites are identified through shell middens, but numerous other sites have been found in caves near freshwater springs. These cave sites appear to be related to intermittent use, likely during dry seasons. Technology was expedient and tied to shellfish harvesting. Stone tools were made from local materials. Bifaces are relatively rare at early island sites. Arena points have been found at numerous sites. Erlandson (1994: 264) argues that these may have been used as dart points in the hunting of sea mammals while crescents were used in hunting waterfowl or seabirds.

During the Middle Holocene (7,000—3,500 years ago), the populations were subjected to both cultural and environmental changes. On the Channel Islands,

The coast of Southern California in the Santa Barbara region. Photo by downtowngal, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution- Share Alike

FIGURE 1.5 The coast of Southern California in the Santa Barbara region. Photo by downtowngal, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution- Share Alike.

there is increased evidence of permanent settlement, technological innovation, artistic elaboration, and subsistence intensification. It is also during this period that the participation within a larger regional exchange system begins. In terms of site distribution, they tend to focus on the most productive portions of the islands including coastlines, marine terraces, caves, rock shelters, and interior hilltops (see table 3 in Rick et al. [2005] for a thorough list of sites and associated dates). By this time, sea levels were relatively stable, and intertidal and subtidal shellfish communities were a productive source of food for the inhabitants of the sites.

During the Middle Holocene, habitation on the islands was year-round and permanent. Inhabitants likely transported animals across, including island foxes. Middle Holocene inhabitants began to experience ecological circumscription, particularly after the establishment of permanent year-round settlements. This, in turn, spurred innovation in technology, change in settlement patterns, and changes in subsistence strategies. Intensification of subsistence methods led to an increase in population size. It is during this period that the composite bone fishhook may have been introduced (King 1990: 80). Tools were made from stone but also from marine mammal bone, abalone, and clamshells. Fiber-based technologies were also employed in the creation of nets, bags, baskets, twine, and rope; these have rarely survived in the archaeological record and are usually inferred based on indirect evidence in the form of basketry impressions and tarring pebbles used in the waterproofing of baskets.

Shell middens from this period vary from small, single-component sites (likely seasonally occupied) to large, dense concentrations likely related to large settlements such as villages. Environmental variation on the different islands and different parts of the various islands had a significant impact on both the degree of resource intensification and the degree of involvement with other islands or the mainland.

Interaction between the islands and the mainland was common during this period. As noted by Rick and colleagues (2005: 194), “Trade networks strengthened cooperative relationships, group cohesion, marriage alliance, and economic stability.” Interaction between groups would have been very important for the creation of group identity, and because it is generally believed that the groups were ethnically distinct from each other, these interactions would have been mediated by complex social, political, and economic factors. Both utilitarian and exotic goods were exchanged between the island and the mainland. The Channel Islands were a center of production in shell artifacts, beads, and ornaments. Obsidian from the mainland was traded to the islands.

This summary only includes a portion of this period because the focus of this volume is in precontact social patterns. The “discovery” of California by Europeans, however, can be seen as a continuation of the cultural changes that are emblematic of this period. Recent research (e.g., Arnold 1992; 1996; 2001; Arnold and Green 2002) has shown that most people during this period were living in large, multifamily villages in defensible areas on the Channel Islands. There was a focus on production of beads and microblades (see table 4 in Rick et al. [2005] for a thorough list of sites from this period). Sites from this period, in some cases, extend into the historic period. By this time, cultural affinity with the historic Chumash can be firmly established. They were located in areas rich in resources (either marine or terrestrial), although there may have been an increased use of coastal resources over interior resources. Population size increases at numerous sites as well.

By the late Holocene, boat technology can at least be inferred. This type of boat known as a tomol, or tiat, is a plank-type seaworthy boat; these have been documented historically. They would have been used both to traverse the distance between the islands and the mainland and to access larger marine resources such as swordfish. Arnold (1995) argues that these would have been available for at least the last 1,500 years. The earliest plank canoes that have preserved date to around 1,300 years before present (Gamble 2002), but boat-making parts have been identified from earlier assemblages.

Technologically, the single-piece fishhook, harpoon, and a variety of arrow points become prevalent in assemblages. The bow and arrow appear on the Channel Islands around 1500 bc; this would have changed hunting patterns. Microblade technology is prevalent at this time; these were likely used as drills in the production of shell beads that would have been valuable trade items. These types of goods become more prevalent in the Late Holocene, with some ornaments increasing exponentially (Rick et al. 2005).

Economically, there is an increase in the importance of marine resources, particularly in fishing for deepwater fishes such as tuna, swordfish, and mako sharks (likely related to the use of plank canoe). Shellfish are still an important part of the economy; with increasing population sizes, it would have been important to make intensive use of all available resources. This also explains the increased exploitation of birds during this time as well. Both shellfish and birds made up a portion of the diet, but the overall diet decreased in diversity. While more of each of these types of food was included in the diet, the greater increase was coming from deepwater fishes.

Social complexity increases tremendously during this period. Using Kennett’s model (Kennett 2005; Kennett and Conlee 2002; Kennett and Kennett 2000), Chumash cultural complexity increases between 1,500 and 650 years ago because of long-term population growth, resource intensification, and climatic instability. It is also during this period that changes in interpersonal violence become evident. Analysis of trauma and interpersonal violence has been extensively explored by various researchers (e.g., Hollimon 1990; Lambert 1993; 1994; 1997; 2007; Walker 1989). The cultural changes visible in the archaeological and bioarchaeological record are likely reflective of ecological changes and population increases. In general, with intensification in conjunction with population increases, health tends to suffer.

Archaeological research on the Channel Islands has a long history, extending back over 100 years. Beginning in the 1940s, this research gained new momentum through the introduction and heavy use of radiocarbon dating. This focus was renewed in the 1970s and 1980s and continues to this day.

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