Before the Spanish invasion of the region, what’s now California enjoyed the highest human population density north of what is today Mexico. Today, Los Angeles is home to more people of Native ancestry than any other metropolitan area in the US, a population which includes peoples indigenous to Southern California as well as people with Native roots elsewhere in North America. Although our understanding of the prehistoric settlement of the Americas continues to evolve, the first people in what’s now Los Angeles were likely the ancestors of the Chumash, whose ancestors discovered California at least 13,000 years ago. For about 10,000 years, or 75% of the region’s history of human habitation, they were likely the only people who lived in what’s now Los Angeles County.
Human settlement of the Americas likely began sometime during the Paleolithic era when people from North Asia arrived by crossing the Beringia land bridge, which existed from roughly 45000 BCE until 12000 BCE. They are presumed to have come in pursuit of prey — including herds of now-extinct Pleistocene megafauna like mammoths and mastodons. By the time the Beringia land bridge was once again submerged beneath the ocean, humans had spread throughout most of the Americas — although Greenland (Greenlandic: Kalaallit Nunaat) — which many somehow forget is part of North America — wasn’t settled until roughly 2500 BCE. Not knowing what, if any, name they had for themselves, we know them today as Paleoamericans.
“California” is also an imported term and (barring some exceedingly unlikely coincidence) no one ever referred to our state thus until the 16th century, when Spanish explorers named the region after a name borrowed from Las Sergas de Esplandián, published in 1510. The plot of that novel concerned a mythical island called California that was ruled by a queen named Calafia. An archeological sites in Cooper’s Ferry, Idaho, carbon-dated to c. 14540 BCE to 13260 BCE and footprints in New Mexico estimated to have been formed between 21,000 and 23,000 years ago have proved that humans were living in North America much earlier than was previously widely accepted. Still, the skeletal remains of the so-called Arlington Springs Man, discovered in 1959 on Southern California‘s Santa Rosa Island and dated to approximately 11000 BCE, are among the oldest human remains thus discovered in the Americas.
13,000 years ago, humans had yet to discover Madagascar, most of the South Pacific, and northernmost Europe and Asia. Outside of the Levant and Mesopotamia, where agriculture had been established, nearly all humans subsisted as hunter-gatherers. The humans who discovered the Channel Islands hunted giant mice and dwarf mammoths, both of which went extinct around the same time. Sea levels, then, were some 46 meters lower than they are today. The northern Channel Islands — technically part of Santa Monica Mountain range — were then one large island separated from mainland California by an eight kilometer channel. According to their creation story, this is where the Chumash began.
The Chumash (the name means “bead maker” or “seashell people”), according to their traditional beliefs, sprouted on the island from seeds of a plant created by to their origin story, Hutash, the Earth mother. The Chumash were cold so Hutash’s husband, Alchupo’osh (a sky snake), gave them fire by striking the ground with a bolt of lightning. The Chumash tended and preserved the fire and used to keep warm and to cook food. The fire’s smoke attracted the watchful condor, until then all-white, who was blackened with soot when he got too close, giving him the appearance he has today.
The Chumash grew in number and the noise of their singing and dancing began to annoy Hutash, who created a rainbow bridge to the mainland between the island of Limuw and Tzchimoos, a tall mountain near Mishopshno (now Carpinteria) so that the Chumash could spread out and Hutash could enjoy some peace and quiet. While crossing the bridge, some of the Chumash fell into the ocean and were turned into dolphins, which were traditionally therefore regarded as the Chumash’s kin.
While several of the elements of the Chumash origin story are supernatural or, at the very least, poetic, one can easily ascertain in them grains of truth. The people from the island were among the only deep seafaring peoples in the Americas and they did indeed spread from the island to the mainland. By 9000 BCE, they had coalesced into the Chumash. Their territory, at its greatest extend, stretched to the Morro Bay, the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the Carrizo Plain, the Sierra Pelonas, and likely the Southern Channel Islands.
Around 6000 BCE, the sea levels again began to rise, submerging archaeological evidence along the coast of the mainland and Channel Islands underneath the ocean. A shell midden in the Ballona Wetlands, however, was dated to roughly 6000 BCE and those wetlands — now the communities of Playa del Rey, Playa Vista, Marina del Rey, Del Rey, and Marine Peninsula — are believed to have supported the largest Chumash village on the mainland.
The wetlands were formerly, at least sometimes, located at the estuary located where the Los Angeles River formerly flowed into Santa Monica Bay (the River’s mouth moved to the San Pedro Bay in 1825 CE). The coastal Chumash historically subsisted on a diet of sea vegetables, halibut, red abalone, sea bass, swordfish, trout, and shellfish. They traded their harvest with inland Chumash, who hunted deer, elk, rabbit, and quail; and foraged for berries, bulbs, greens, mushrooms, walnuts, and roots. The acorn, the fruit of Southern California’s endemic oak varieties but especially the coast live oak, was the staple of all Chumash and was used to make bread, cakes, and soup.
DROUGHT & DEPOPULATION
The 4th millennium was characterized by a series of prolonged droughts. Formerly fertile marshes became stagnant lagoons. The Chumash population shrank and they abandoned the inland borderlands of their realm, retracting to the Channel Islands, Central Coast, and Malibu coast (the name, Malibu, comes from the Chumash name, Humaliwo, meaning “where the surf sounds loudly”). The largest village in the Santa Monica Mountains region was Muwu (now Point Mugu), which served as capital of sorts for the Chumash realm of Lulapin. Other Chumash villages included Calleguas, Hipuc, Huam, Humaliu, Lalimanuc, Lisichi, Lojostogni, Mikiw, Sapue, Talepop, and Yihiwi. There are also numerous locations in Southern California whose names indicate their Chumash roots, including Anacapa, Castaic, Lompoc, Ojai, Pismo Beach, Port Hueneme, Piru, Saticoy, and Simi Valley.
The ancient Chumash were advanced seafarers and were one of just three Native American peoples (the other being the Mapuche of Chile and Tongva, who arrived in Southern California later) known to have crafted deep-seafaring crafts, which the Chumash called tomol. The Chumash fashioned their watercraft by sewing together planks of redwood that had drifted southward from the forests to the north. They were waterproofed with yop, a mixture of pine sap and the tar that seeps up from beneath the floor of the Santa Barbara Channel. Although evidence is currently at best scant, there are some who believe that the seafaring Chumash were in contact with ancient Polynesians. Perhaps it will be proven conclusively in the future. It wasn’t until 2020, after all, that DNA proved definitevly that the seafaring Mapuche and Polynesians were in contact with one another.
THE TAKIC EXPANSION
After some 10,000 years of being the region’s only people, a few thousand years ago, other humans began to migrate into the area. The Te’po’ta’ahl and Yokuts migrated into what had formerly been the northern edge of Chumash territory. In the east, an inland sea that rose and fell over the centuries, began to shrink once again. The Aztecs referred to their homeland on the edge of this sea as Aztlān. Around 2000 BCE, they diverged from their neighbors and headed south. The ancestors of the Acagchemem, Kitanemuk, Payómkawichum, Tataviam, and Tongva — all of whom spoke Uto-Aztecan langauges — headed west. They are believed to have settled in what are now Los Angeles and Orange counties around 1500 BCE, making them, in essence, the region’s first “transplants.”
The semi-arid scrublands Los Angeles Basin that these migrants entered must’ve seemed lush compared to their homeland in the Sonoran Desert. Their first encounter with Chumash, who’se language was nothing like theirs, must’ve been monumental. We do know that the Chumash referred to the Tataviam, who settled in and around the Santa Clarita Valley, as “Alliklik” — meaning “grunters” or “stammerers.” Perhaps their Takic tongues were more melliflous to their neighbors to the east as the ʔívil̃uqaletem, Kuupangaxwichem, Maarenga’yam, Taaqtam, and Yuhaviatam all apparently traded their Quechan languages for the new speech around 1000 CE.
Relations between the inhabitants of Southern California, as is true with all humans, no doubt included periods of peace as well as times of conflict. The Spanish noted that some bands of the Chumash were in conflict with others. The Tongva likely learned to make plank canoes, which they called ti’at, from the Chumash — surely a more likely explanation than that desert dwellers arrived at the technology on their own. The Tongva settled San Clemente, San Nicholas, and Santa Catalina, which they named Kiingkenga, Haraasnga, and Pimu’ngna, respectively. A writer later noted mass graves on the islands, which he believed were evidence of ancient battles, possibly between the Chumash and Tongva. The next visitors to the islands were the Spanish, who arrived in 1542 CE.
THE SPANISH ERA
Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo led a maritime expedition along the coast California on behalf of Spain in 1542. In October, Cabrillo’s crew passed fog-shrouded Anacapa (‘Anyapax, in Chumash, literally meaning “mirage” or “illusion”). Lacking a consistent freshwater source, the island (islands, actually) was uninhabited by the Chumash but used as a hunting ground. The Spanish next stopped at the island of Tuqan, which they renamed “San Miguel.” There they anchored for a few weeks. The crew sailed on through the Chumash territories of Xexo (now Santa Barbara County) and Xucu (now Ventura County), which were then at war, before sailing on in November to the land of the Miwok. Cabrillo and his crew returned to Southern California on 23 November, anchoring at Pimu’ngna in order to make repairs and to rest. In December, the crew had apparently worn out their welcome or otherwise offended the Pimuvit, as the island’s residents were known, as they attacked their uninvited guests. Cabrillo suffered an injury and the crew left. Cabrillo’s injury developed gangrene and he died on 3 January 1543. He body was buried on the Chumash island of Tuquan. Cabrillo’s crew then departed, arriving at Barra de Navidad in April.
Of course, it wasn’t the last time the Spanish came to Chumash country. On 18 October 1587, Nuestra Señora de Buena Esperanza arrived from Portuguese Macau in Morro Bay. A landing party consisting of Spanish and Filipinos decided to erect a cross on top of a hill. A party of Chumash attacked the crew, killing one Spanish and one Filipino crewmember. The remaining crew, however, repelled the Chumash and set sail for Acapulco on the 21st. That would be the last contact between Europeans, Asians, and Chumash for many years.
Although the Spanish claimed all that they saw for Spain, they didn’t bother establishing a permanent foothold until they began founding presidios and missions in 1769. Misión San Luís Obispo de Tolosa (1772), Misión San Buenaventura (1782), Misión de la Purísima Concepción de la Santísima Virgen María (1789), and Misión Santa Inés (1804) were all established on Chumash lands. By 1806, most mainland Chumash lived and worked at one of those missions (or Misión San Fernando Rey de España, built on Tataviam lands). The Spanish re-named the “neophytes” after the missions with which they were associated: Fernandeño, Ineseño, Obispeño, Purisimeño, or Ventureño.
THE MEXICAN ERA
Mexico declared independence from Spain on 16 September 1810. By 1816, most island Chumash had been removed from the islands by the Mexicans and relocated to the missions. Misión de Santa Bárbara was completed in 1820. Tensions between the indigenous Chumash and their Mexican colonizers were often fraught. On 21 February 1824, after a Chumash boy was beaten by a Mexican soldier, the Chumash and Yokuts revolted against their subjugators. First the Nativs burned the mission at Santa Inés to the ground. Next they attacked La Purísima. The next day they captured Santa Bárbara. on 16 March, however, the Mexican government sent military reinforcements who quelled the insurrection. Most of the Chumash and Yokuts surrendered and were returned to the missions by June. Mexico secularized the missions in 1834. Most of the Chumash, afterward, left to search for work as laborers on vast Mexican ranches.
THE AMERICAN ERA
After 1848, when the US defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War, the Chumash were further dispossessed. In 1855, 120 acres of land were set aside for roughly 100 Chumash, whose descendants are the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. The Santa Ynez Reservation was founded there in 1901. Other Chumash are enrolled in the Tejon Indian Tribe of California, which also includes in its ranks Kitanemuk and Yokuts. Other bands including the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation, the Barbareño/Ventureño Band of Mission Indians, and the Northern Chumash Tribal Council are still unrecognized, federally.
THE CHUMASH REVIVAL
The last native Chumash speaker died in 1965, which may’ve contributed, in a Chumash cultural revival that began to gain momentum in the 1970s.The Chumash Painted Cave, depicting Chumash cosmology, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. On 5 May 1976, the Burro Flats Painted Cave (a site historically used to predict and celebrated the Winter Solstice) was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Also in 1976, the Quabajai Chumash of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History collaborated to build a tomol called Xelex (falcon). The Brotherhood of the Tomol circumnavigated and visited three of the Channel Islands. In 1979, a Chumash elder began efforts to protect Shalawa Meadow, an historic burial site, and was joined in his mission by locals, who helped create a monument there.
The Chumash Indian Museum opened in 1994. Another tomol, the Elye’wun (swordfish), was launched in 1997. In 2001, the Chumash Maritime Association and the Barbareño Chumash Council rowed Elye’wun to Limuw on 9 September 2001, which was documented with a short film, Return to Limuw. Since then, the Barbareño Chumash Council have undertaken such crossings annually. The Guadalupe Cultural Arts and Education Center opened in 2001. The Chumash Casino Resort opened in August 2003. The first Chumash dictionary, the Samala-English Dictionary, was published in 2008. Another documentary, 6 Generations: A Chumash Family History, was released in 2011. In 2018, the 10,000-year-old remains of the so-called Tuqan Man, discovered in 2005, were returned to the island where they were discovered having been uncovered by coastal erosion. in 2006, the arborglyph on the so-called Scorpion Tree — previously believed by many to have been graffiti created by a cowboy — was determined to have been created by the Chumash as a cosmological instrument.
MODERN CHUMASH LOS ANGELES
Today, most people who claim Chumash heritage live in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. Thanks to changes in the census, the most recent census figures I could find for Chumash are from all the way back in 1990, when 3,208 US census respondents self-identified thus. 408 of those respondents lived in Los Angeles County. With so few Chumash in Los Angeles today and much of the evidence of their historic presence erased by rising sea levels, the Chumash are often erased by well-meaning but mis-informed Angelenos in land acknowledgments. I don’t even know if the ancient Chumash had a concept for “land ownership,” nor, for that matter, whether or not the animals, plants, and fungi who preceded them “ceded” that land to the Chumash. Go forth with the knowledge, though, the Chusmash were and are Los Angeles’s first people.