asked what California was called before Europeans "discovered"
it, a 16th century Indian might well have said, "Ours!"
Prior to any Euro-Americans, there were indigenous people living
in present day California for an estimated 10 to 15,000 years. By
the 16th century, they comprised about 300,000 people, speaking
more than 60 languages (Fagan,.4). Although the early explorers
and missionaries recorded some of their encounters with the indigenous
people of California, their observations were generally buried in
dusty volumes thumbed by historians centuries later. Only since
the second half of the 19th century did the "new" Californians
begin to learn about the indigenous people they called Indians.
The earliest studies were simple word lists as a process of communication
and trade began. Later would follow more systematic information
somewhat simplistic designation for people, generally preliterate,
who appear to share the same language, kinship, and culture.
Among the so-called
"north coastal tribes," the Pomo, the Coast Yuki, and
the Coast Miwok are the ones most likely to have walked within MRC
forests, although there was always an interconnectedness between
indigenous human populations and their neighbors for food, ornaments,
and tools. While the footprints of the indigenous people have disappeared,
some of their trails, as well as village sites with scattered points
and pottery shards, still remain on the forest floor. Such evidence
is scarcely visible, though, except to the trained eye. In Before
California, Brian Fagan writes of how difficult it is for even
the "experts" to interpret this past.
|Like the shamans
and storytellers of old, archaeologists try to tell a story.
Their narratives are not of Coyote and mythic beasts behaving
like humans, but rather of material things, of ways of making
a living in a harsh environment. The chants and recitations
of yore have long vanished on the wind, like all the intangibles
of the past. This means that we will never fully comprehend
what happened at those memorable turning points of ancient California
history when growing populations and moments of hunger or strife
led to new directions, to technological innovations, and to
supplementary foods becoming staples. All we can do is monitor
the changes from broken bones, shells, and humble artifacts.
We will never discern the twists and turns of ritual, the unspoken
and acted-out rationales that defined these moments in terms
of restoring order to worlds out of balance. But we know that
these rituals and rationales worked astoundingly well, simply
because ancient California societies changed, survived, and
thrived when they changed directions, refining their relationships
with one another, the environment, and the cosmos. They were
often brilliantly successful. (Fagan, 35-6).
For the most part, the indigenous people
of Mendocino County were sustained by fishing, hunting, gathering,
and trading. Their earliest settlements were inland—for one
big reason: salmon. Chinook and coho salmon, along with steelhead
trout, were the catch of the day. "Salmon were the most intensively
managed and ecologically manipulated food resource in ancient northern
California,” writes Brian Fagan. "Some estimates place
ancient consumption at over fifteen million pounds annually"
(Fagan, 234). In some cases the indigenous people built large fish
weirs with basket traps at certain intervals in the water. Fish
would swim until they encountered the weir, turn back, and then
swim into a trap. There were also platforms where someone could
reach down, dip a net, and haul out the fish that were penned. One
weir on the Klamath River, north of Mendocino County, took 70 men
10 days to construct. The weir had 9 openings, each with its own
pen and was "the largest structure ever built in ancient California"
(Fagan, 236). The ancient people also understood the life cycles
of the salmon. The weir let the first run of salmon pass unobstructed
so that they could spawn and replenish the fish population. After
about 500 A.D. there are more coastal Indian sites with archeological
evidence of sea mammal hunting; the most intense exploitation of
the coast occurs after 1200 A.D. (Fagan, 229). Because California
has at least 15 species of oaks, acorns were also a ready staple
for the indigenous people and for some of the animals they hunted,
of northern California left a small "ecological footprint."
An ecological footprint is a measure of sustainability, gauging
the amount of productive land and water
that a population needs to meet its demands and absorb its waste.
As one might expect, the United States is currently the Big Foot
among the nations of the earth. This
is not to say that the indigenous people did not actively alter
their environment at all. Indigenous people developed a system of
vegetation management that extended throughout most of the Holocene,
a name given to the last 11,000 years of earth history—the
time since the last "ice age." Research suggests that
Native Americans burned forests and scrub to expedite travel; increase
the availability of plants for food, medicine, and basket making;
improve the browsing conditions for deer; and keep prairies and
meadows open for hunting. By the time the first Euro-Americans came
to northern California, the land, while thickly forested, had already
seen thousands of years of burning, tilling, sowing, harvesting,
and hunting. The ruggedness of the terrain, the relatively small
populations of the Native Americans, and the simplicity of their
dwellings may have restricted significant ecological impacts in
northern California, although this is still open to debate.
Only in northwest California
did the ancient people build very large redwood canoes and these
came on the scene fairly late—in the last 500 years (Fagan,
219). Because of the huge size of the redwood logs, the paddlers
stood upright, their feet steadied by chiseled bumps in the bottom
of the canoe. In 1872, an amateur anthropologist, Stephen Powers,
recorded details about one of these dugouts—"a thing
of beauty"—on Humboldt Bay (Fagan, 219). The canoe was
42 feet long, almost 8 1/2 feet wide, and could carry 24 people.
According to Brian Fagan, the dugouts were the result of readily
available straight-grained redwood trunks:
huge size of the redwoods allowed the builders to hollow out
a deeper, more stable hull with higher side than usual. Provided
the walls were kept thin, the canoes would have been buoyant
and good load carriers, but still probably dangerous in large
swells and wind waves, especially when these came from the side.
Two parallel rows of carved bumps on the bottom of the inside
served as footholds for the standing paddlers...They would build
the canoes along riverbanks, where driftwood logs were abundant,
or fallen redwoods lay close to the water. Redwood being straight
grained, the process of splitting logs with elk horn wedges
and pounders was easy for people used to building planked houses.
The builders used fire to hollow the the split log. By moving
a fire or hot charcoal backward and forward along the length
of the log, they could burn deep into the timber. With good
judgment, they would smother the fire carefully at intervals
to control the burn. The flames or red hot charcoal excised
most of the interior. (Fagan, 220)
Boy with Fox (1922), painting by
Grace Hudson (1865-1937), National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson
Redwood plank dwelling near Fort
Bragg, Kelley House Research Office (Mendocino, CA).
Fagan, Brian. Before California:
An Archaeologist Looks at Our Earliest Inhabitants. Walnut Creek,
CA: Rowman & Littlefield/AltaMira Press, 2003.
Keeley, Jon E. "Native American impacts on
fire regimes of the California coastal ranges, Journal of Biogeography,
Vol. 29, pp. 303-320.
Mendocino County Remembered: An Oral History. Mendocino
County, CA: The Mendocino County Historical Society, Vols I and
Moratto, Michael J. California Archaeology.
Orlando, Florida: Academic Press, 1984.
Sturtevant., William C, gen. ed.
Handbook of North American Indians: California (Vol. 8). Robert
F.Heiz er, volume editor. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution,
Wackernagel, Mathis and William Rees. Our Ecological
Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. Philadelphia, PA:
New Society Publishers, 1996.