Native Americans - Origins

No one knows exactly when humans first appeared in the Western United States nor do we know for certain how they arrived or where they came from. There are numerous theories and explanations. Native Americans explain their own origins in ways which modern scholars find fascinating but discount as myth. Most archeologists believe that stone age people arrived in the region between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago and that they came overland from Northeastern Asia.

The area that the first inhabitants found when they arrived was very different from the region of today. Much of the earth was still covered with ice and sea levels were about three hundred feet lower than today. Along the coast the continental shelf extended far out to the west from today's shoreline. The Golden Gate was a river estuary not the entrance to a large bay. Snow levels in the mountains were much lower and extensive forests covered the southern coastal areas. Today's desert areas were better watered and an extensive series of small lakes dotted the central valley.

The first humans were few in number and practiced a hunter-gatherer life style. They arrived in time to hunt the last of the ice-age animals including mammoths, sloths, wild horses, saber-toothed tigers, and camels. They used stone to craft distinctive fluted points for their spears. These artefacts have been found throughout inland areas of the region and are known as Clovis points. The earliest evidence of the use of Clovis points in California is from 11,200 B.C. and the last use of them is believed to have been about 10,900 B.C. (This coincides with the disappearance of the last of the ice-age animals in California.) These first settlers also supplemented their diet with smaller animals, birds, fish, shellfish and a variety of plant foods. Their hunter-gatherer lifestyle made them highly mobile but their lives were anchored to dependable water sources.

Sea levels continued to rise as the ice-age glaciers melted. The continental shelf retreated to the east, the Golden Gate became the entrance to a rapidly growing bay, and inland areas became steadily more arid. From 6,500 B.C. until 2,000 B.C. California experienced a particularly warm and dry climate (the Altithermal period). During this period grasses formed an increasingly important food source and the people used distinctive milling stones to grind the grass seeds prior to consumption. Archeologists refer to this period as the Milling Stone Horizon. Life was difficult at best and periods of drought made extended periods of hunger and malnutrition inevitable.

By 2,500 B.C. the inhabitants of California were forced to depend more and more on food sources that required considerable labor to process. Central to this period was the increased dependence on acorns as a primary food source. Fifteen species of oak exist in California and each fall they produce an abundance of acorns. Although acorns are labor intensive to harvest and prepare they are a nutritious food source and can be stored for long periods of time. Combined with a bewildering array of other plant and animal food sources this stable food source permitted the population of California to grow steadily and expand to all parts of the state. Mortars for the processing of acorns have been found in virtually every corner of the state.

Starting in about 1,000 A.D. a cycle of unpredictable weather combined with increased population growth resulted in another period of malnutrition and hunger for many of the Native American communities living in California. At first, conflict erupted as groups vied for control of food sources, but gradually the worst of the quarreling seems to have settled down and increased trade developed. A vast network of personal connections covered the entire state and social structure became more complex. By 500 A.D. the bow and arrow was introduced into California desert regions from the Great Basin. Native Americans throughout California quickly became adept in the use of this new technology.

It is estimated that by the time that Europeans first visited California in the Sixteenth Century A.D. there were 310,000 Native Americans living in California. They gathered into small villages and spoke over 60 different languages. They had managed to exist and grow for thirteen millennia in the wilderness, but would be virtually wiped out in a few centuries of exposure to civilization.

"The priest explained the mysteries of the faith 'by signs,'
for the saving of the savages; thus compensating them
possible possessions in heaven for the certain
ones on earth which they had just been robbed of.
Nobody smiles at these colossal ironies."

Mark Twain