Settling California, 15,000 BCE

Posted on October 26, 2012


Looking at a map of Aboriginal languages in California, one is first struck by how very many there are.  In fact, the hundred-plus California indigenous languages add up to at least 20% of all languages spoken in Aboriginal North America.  North of the 49th parallel, British Columbia similarly dominates.  The twenty-eight languages spoken in Aboriginal British Columbia (give or take, depending upon definition) represent about half the languages spoken in all of Aboriginal Canada.

Why so many languages on the West Coast?  Scholars who have studied the evolution of languages suggest that a concentration of languages in a territory is a strong indication of long occupation.  It simply takes a long time for languages to evolve, differentiate and hive off from each other.  Since there are so many more languages along the West Coast than other parts of Aboriginal North America, this suggests that the coast was occupied earlier.  This reinforces another theory in respect of how and when the Americas were settled.

The old theory has been around a long time and survived comfortably into the 21st century, so its not ancient or anything, just wrong.  The old theory has folks wandering over the Bering Strait land bridge and so on down into the interior of North America through an ice-free corridor that nature had opened up for them.  In this theory, they settled down south of the continental ice sheets to become the paleo-Indians, hunting big game animals, etc.  These were the Clovis people, named after an archeological site in Clovis, New Mexico.

Now the trouble with this idea has always been that there was no real evidence of it.  The trail that the people supposedly took to enter the Americas displayed—despite a lot of looking by archeologists—no trace of their passing.  And the corridor was long and barren and dangerous for anyone without a six month supply of food on their backs going in.  And then there were annoying sites elsewhere, on the West Coast, even in South America, which appeared to be older than the Clovis sites.

Until recently, most of the evidence of sites older than Clovis was discounted.  Then scholars looked again, closer, with better science, and they realized that the Clovis culture was much too Johnny-come-lately to be the start of anything.  In fact, wasn’t that evidence of an older culture beneath the Clovis artifacts, already in the ground before the Clovis arrived?

New scholarship renders the old theory effectively dead, but what was there to replace it?  The sea route.  If people originally settled the Americas by following the coast, as this alternative theory suggests, then the concentration of languages on the West Coast and in Aboriginal California makes sense.  And once you realize that much of British Columbia was still covered by the continent-spanning Laurentide Ice Sheet during the early part of this settlement process, the lesser—but still impressive—concentration of Aboriginal languages further north along the coast also makes sense.  The British Columbia coast had to melt a little first, but that would have still happened before the ice sheets melted in Canada’s interior.  The California coast, ice sheet free all along, would have been preferentially settled by the first wave of settlers.

According to some of the latest estimates, the settlement of the Americas began more than 17 thousand years ago.  This is seven times further in the past than the Ancient Greeks, a depth of time outside of the human scale, which human beings are not really equipped to understand.  If I had a land title 55 hundred years old written on clay in ancient cuneiform, the original California inhabitants could still deride me as a recent immigrant, 12 thousand years too late to claim any real roots in the place.  They had already hunted there 7 thousand years before the first farmers planted the first crops in Eastern Asia.  In any legitimate sense, in any scale meaningful to human beings and human cultures—and this is my point—the Aboriginal people of California have lived there forever.

When the Europeans started appearing on the coast, the Aboriginal people of California, even those who lived in settled villages—and they were many—were hunter gatherers.  Hunter-gatherers display an attachment to the land which agriculturalists sometimes have a difficult time understanding

Writing in 1978, Robert Heizer says, “Nothing illustrates more the deep-seated provincialism and attachment to the place of their birth of California Indians than the abundantly documented wish for persons who died away from home to have their bodies (or their ashes if the distance was too great) returned for burial at their natal village.” (Quoted in Lightfoot, p. 27.)

In Indians, Missionaries and Merchants, Kent Lightfoot writes “Ethnographers noted that Indian elders knew the stories behind every named rock and landmark in their territory, and could recite creation stories and myths about how their ancestors had played a part in the creation and early use of the landscape.” (p.48)

The shores that the original settlers set down on in California have long since sunk under the rising oceans, inundated with waters from that melting ice sheet which once covered Canada.  Meanwhile a rising tide of culture enveloped the rest of the land.  Like barnacles, the peoples’ stories clung to all the rocks and places, claiming the landscape for that cultural tide.  For that is what stories mean in the Aboriginal worldview:  they are ancient titles to the land.  If you knew a land’s stories, it meant you belonged to it and it to you.

When the missionaries arrived in California in 1769, they brought with them a plan to relocate Aboriginal people to their missions, a plan which they rigorously carried out and which they reinforced with severe punishments for “neophytes” who attempted to escape the missions.

Writes Kent Lightfoot, “The magnetism that native lands exerted upon the neophytes astounded the padres.  Mission Indians risked severe punishment to return to their cherished hills and parklands, and many left the missions surreptitiously, to die in the lands of their ancestors.”

Some people still think of hunter-gatherers as people who merely wander over it.  This has never been true.  Most hunter-gatherers shape the land profoundly.  And the characterization misses a deeper truth.

Hugh Brody (who I’ve quoted before but who still says it best) puts it this way:

…a crucial difference between hunter-gatherers and farmers is that one society is highly mobile, with a strong tendency to both small- and large-scale nomadism, whereas the other is highly settled, tending to stay firmly in one particular area or territory.  This difference is established in stereotypes of “nomadic” hunters and “settled” farmers.

However, the stereotype has it the wrong way round.  It is agricultural societies that tend to be on the move; hunting peoples are far more firmly settled.  This fact is evident when we look at these two ways of being in the world over a long time span – when we screen the movie of human history, as it were, rather than relying on a photograph.  The Other Side of Eden:  Hunters, Farmers and the Shaping of the World, 2000, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, p. 7.

What the padres were encountering in their runaway neophytes were people who knew what attachment to the land really meant.  As wanderers from a culture of wanderers the missionaries couldn’t be expected to understand that level of attachment.

As for the Aboriginal people of California, that attachment overreached human memory to a mythic past.  As much as any people who have lived in the world, they truly knew where they belonged.

It doesn’t require 17 thousand years of residence to make a home seem like home, but it probably helps.