The Chumash

Time period: 9000 BP - present
Location country for sites: Santa Barbara Straight, California, USA
mtDNA haplogroups: A1, D2
Y haplogroups: Q1

Basket Example of a Chumash Basket [19]
Rock art Example of Chumash Rock Art [20]

The Paleoindian Cultures of North America:

While humans had expanded across all of Eurasia and Africa by 40,000 years ago, it was not until around 18,000 years ago that they appeared in the Americas. Archaeological evidence suggests that people began to move across a land bridge that connected Siberia to present-day Alaska that exist at the end of the last ice age [1]. This land bridge existed because sea levels were much lower as a result of a large amount of water being stored in the polar ice sheets. The bridge is thought to have existed for tens of thousands of years [2].

The earliest human groups to have reach North America likely followed clear corridors between the ice sheets that covered present-day Canada and the northern United States. There is evidence that they had made it as far as the South American continent by 14,600 years ago [3]. These people would have encountered mammoths on both sides side of the land bridge, but also many new local species such as mastadons and giant sloths [4].

The earliest cultures of North America are little know, as there are very few and quite scattered archaeological sites. By 12,000 years ago, as populations began to increase, more evidence for human activity began to appear. It used to be thought that these early sites were part of a pan-American culture known as the Clovis culture given the uniformity of the artifacts across large distances, although more local varieties have been discovered in recent times [5-6]. These early Native American cultures were defined by large elongated spear points that were used for hunting large game.

The Chumash Culture of Southern California:

The earliest evidence of human occupation in coastal areas of present-day Southern California dates to 9,000 years ago, around the time of the last mammoths [7-8]. The earliest people living on the islands of the Santa Barbara Straight consumed large amounts of shellfish, although on the mainland there was more use of plants and other animals due to a wetter climate [9]. By 1,600 years ago more fish were being eaten and fishhooks, nets, and harpoons have been found at archaeological sites, as well as evidence of the Chumash plank canoe called the tomol. There is evidence that the Chumash may have also burned the landscape to make the plants these people ate more abundant [10].

By 1,000 years ago, there were two Native American groups that had inhabited the region, the Chumash and the Gabrielino. The Chumash lived in the northern Santa Barbara Channel Islands while the Gabrielino lived further south, having migrated from the Great Basin region [11]. The two groups spoke a different language and remained independent for most of known history. The Chumash were eventually brought within the Spanish Empire, who first sent missions into California [12]. Their lands later became territory within the American state of California.

The Chumash have fascinated archaeologists and anthropologists for decades. By the time of first contact with Europeans, the Chumash were organised into chiefdoms and had a large exchange network with the mainland, including a booming trade in shell beads [13]. The complexity of this society has played into debates about the evolution of societal structures in ancient Native American groups [9,14].

Recent genetic analysis has shown that there was a major split between North American Paleoindian groups early in the peopling of North America around the time of the Clovis hunters [15]. It is thought that this occurred after they had reached south of the ice sheets in the western half of the present-day United States. There is a clear coastal route for one of these splits and spreading out across the continents of North and South America for the second split. All modern Native North Americans have some component from each split in them today. The Chumash fall within this western coastal route and have a high proportion of coastal genes.

Only two mitochondrial haplogroups were found among the Chumash, A1 and D1, both of which appeared in Asia during the Paleolithic. Haplogroup A is closely related to haplogroup N, which spread into Europe during the Neolithic from West Asia. Haplogroup A is most common among native North Americans but is also found in East Asia. Haplogroup D1 is common among Northeast Asians and is also common in native North Americans [16]. All males belonged to a single Y chromosome haplogroup, Q1a, which is most common among native North Americans but is also found among Central Asians in the Altai Mountains, and among some southeast Asians including people from Thailand [17-18].


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  2. Gladenkov AY, Oleinik A, Marinkovitch L, Baranov KB. 2002. A refined age for the earliest opening of Bering Strait. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 183, 321–328.
  3. Dillehay TD. 1999. The late Pleistocene cultures of South America. Evolutionary Anthropology 7: 206–216.
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  10. Johnson T, Earle D. 1982. Vegetation Burning by the Chumash. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 4: 163-186.
  11. Erlandson JM. 1988. Of Millingstones and Molluscs: The Cultural Ecology of Early Holocene Hunter-Gatherers of the California Coast. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara.
  12. Williams C. 2008. ‘Opening New Frontiers in Colonial Spanish American History: New Perspectives on Indigenous‐Spanish Interactions on the Margins of Empire’, History Compass, 6/4: 1123–1124.
  13. Johnson JR. 1988. Chumash Social Organization: An Ethnohistoric Perspective. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara.
  14. Kristiansen K. 1987 From Stone to Bronze: The Evolution of Social Complexity in Northern Europe, 2300-1200 BC. In Specialization, Exchange, and Complex Societies, Brumfield EM, Earle TK (eds.) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 30-51.
  15. Scheib H, et al. 2018. Ancient human parallel lineages within North America contributed to a coastal expansion. Science, 360: 1024-1027.
  16. Starikovskaya EB, et al. 2005. Mitochondrial DNA diversity in indigenous populations of the southern extent of Siberia, and the origins of Native American haplogroups. Ann Hum Genet 69(Pt 1): 67-89.
  17. Fagundes NJR, Kanitz Ricardo, Eckert R, Valls ACS, Bogo MR, Salzano FM, Smith DG, Silva WA, Zago MA, Ribeiro-Dos-Santos AK, Santos SEB, Petzl-Erler ML, Bonatto SL. 2008. Mitochondrial Population Genomics Supports a Single Pre-Clovis Origin with a Coastal Route for the Peopling of the Americas. American Journal of Human Genetics. 82: 583–592.
  18. Dulik MC, et al. 2012. Mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome variation provides evidence for a recent common ancestry between Native Americans and Indigenous Altaians. American Journal of Human Genetics 90: 229–246.
  19. Example of a Chumash Basket,_Chumash,_Santa_Barbara_Mission,_early_1800s_-_Native_American_collection_-_Peabody_Museum,_Harvard_University_-_DSC05558.JPG
  20. Chumash rock art