Essay: Before 1768: Pre-Columbian California
California's natural world has supported human life for at least 15,000 years. Over millennia, waves of migrants explored and settled the region, turning California into one of the most densely populated areas in all of North America. More than 300,000 people lived in California at the time of Spanish colonization in the late 18th century. These native peoples were not organized in a single society, as were the Aztecs to the south, but lived in hundreds of small, politically autonomous communities connected by trade and kinship networks.
Hundreds of Diverse Cultures
The early Native Californian communities were astonishingly diverse in culture and way of life, ranging from the seafaring Chumash to the agricultural Yuma to the nomadic Modoc. Native California groups spoke at least 100 different mutually unintelligible languages, ate different foods, and practiced different religions. These communities had no alphabets and left no written records for historians to interpret, so what we know about Native Californians before the arrival of Europeans is based on four sources:
- archaeological evidence;
- early records of European explorers and colonists;
- oral histories given by tribal elders in the early 20th century; and
- oral traditions passed down to later generations of Native Californians.
This diversity and lack of written records make reconstructing their world a challenge. Nonetheless, we do have some information that helps us to understand pre-Columbian California.
Six Geographical Culture Areas
Early anthropologists divided California's native groups into six geographical "culture areas." This system remains useful, although the boundaries should not be considered rigid. Scholars today emphasize how each area overlapped and contained plenty of internal variety:
- The Colorado River area was home to tribes speaking Yuma, Mohave, and Halchidhoma. They practiced subsistence agriculture, cultivating maize, pumpkins, and beans.
- The southern area was home to Chumash, Serrano, Garbielino, Cahuilla, Liseño, and other language speakers. It supported increasingly larger chiefdoms with complex, stratified social structures.
- In the Great Basin area, along the eastern edge of California, desert groups such as the Paiute, Washo, and Mono made use of rabbits, pine nuts, acorns, and wild plants.
- The enormous central culture area contained the Bay Area, and the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. Here Ohlone, Miwok, Patwin, Pomo, Maidu, and other language groups hunted deer, pronghorn, elk, rabbits, fowl, and fish, and often lived in wooden houses covered with soil.
- In the northwest area, home to the Yoruk, Shasta, Hupa, and other groups, abundant coastal resources (including redwoods) encouraged the development of sophisticated woodworking, canoe-building, and house-building skills.
- Modoc, Achumawi, and Atsugewi speakers in the northeast area shared more with Columbia Plateau peoples of eastern Oregon and Washington than they did with other California groups. This underscores the incredible diversity of Native California.
Shaping the Environment
One activity shared by all native Californians was interaction with and manipulation of the environment. Using combinations of hunting, gathering, fishing, and agriculture, they skillfully harvested California's natural resources.
Many groups dried, shelled, ground, washed, and cooked acorns into soup and bread, flavored with berries, seeds, and nuts. Some caught trout, salmon, and shellfish with harpoons and nets. Others hunted elk, deer, rabbits, and fowl with bows and obsidian-tipped arrows.
Whether they lived in mountains, valleys, deserts, forests, or beaches, native peoples continually tended and cultivated the land through controlled burnings, weeding, pruning, tilling, irrigation, and selective replanting. Because native groups usually altered the landscape in a way that mimicked nature, Europeans mistakenly assumed natives lived in an untouched "wilderness." They could not see how thoroughly California's environment had been transformed by thousands of years of human use.
Most California native communities consisted of between 200 and 500 people under the authority of a male leader. Typically, social life was focused around a central village where the leader lived, surrounded by smaller settlements.
Boundaries between each community's land — usually 8 to 10 square miles — were acknowledged, but groups tended to allow neighbors access for gathering and hunting purposes. Areas with greater natural resources, such as in the San Joaquin Valley and along the coast, usually supported more communities with smaller land bases.
In general, more nomadic groups tended to have greater social equality. More sedentary groups — such as the maritime Yurok of the northwest — had hierarchical social classes with a wide gulf between rich and poor.
Elaborate basketry was an integral component of Native Californian culture and subsistence. Baskets were both beautiful and functional. They varied greatly by shape and size based on their function, be it for gathering food, sifting acorn meal, storing tobacco, gambling, cooking, and even transporting water. Native Californians could weave so tightly that their baskets held boiling water — heated by hot rocks — without leaking.
Baskets varied from group to group in their weaving style and decorative design, often incorporating feathers and beads. Native basketry was so accomplished that pottery-making was rare, only prevalent among southeastern groups. Today, basketry remains important to Native Californian cultures, and California baskets are widely sought after as sophisticated art objects.
A Dynamic Network
With its tremendous cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity and constant in- and out-migration, Native California was a dynamic network of divided but interconnected communities forced to cooperate and interact. In this sense, it was a world not unlike the California of today.
Edward D. Castillo. Short Overview of California Indian History.
National Parks Service. History of American Indians in California
In the Library
Gutiérrez, Ramón A. and Richard J. Orsi. Contested Eden: California Before the Gold Rush. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
Heizer, Robert F. and Albert Elsasser. The Natural World of the California Indians. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
Margolin, Malcolm, ed. The Way We Lived: California Indian Stories, Songs, and Reminiscences. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1993.
Related exhibitionsThe Gold Rush Era: Diversity in the Changing State
Native Americans and Contact
Native Americans: Pre-Columbian California to 18th Century
About this essay:
"Before 1768: Pre-Columbian California" was written by Joshua Paddison and the University of California in 2005 as part of the California Cultures project.
Using this essay:
The text of this essay is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. You are free to share and adapt it however you like, provided you provide attribution as follows:
Before 1768: Pre-Columbian California curated by University of California, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2011, Regents of the University of California.
Please note that this license applies only to the descriptive copy and does not apply to any and all digital items that may appear.