The Chumash are Native American people who historically inhabit chiefly central and southern coastal regions of California, in portions of what is now San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties, extending from Morro Bay in the north to Malibu in the south. They also occupied three of the Channel Islands: Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel; the smaller island of Anacapa was uninhabited. Modern place names with Chumash origins include Malibu, Lompoc, Ojai, Pismo Beach, Point Mugu, Piru, Lake Castaic, and Simi Valley.
Archaeological research demonstrates that the Chumash have deep roots in the Santa Barbara Channel area and lived along the southern California Coast for millennia.
Some scholars (Erlandson et al. 2001) have suggested that Chumash population may have declined substantially during a "protohistoric" period (AD 1542-1769) when intermittent contacts with the crews of Spanish ships--including those of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo's expedition who wintered in the Santa Barbara Channel in AD 1542-43--brought disease and death. But the Chumash appear to have been thriving in the late 18th century when Spaniards first began actively colonizing the California coast. Whether the deaths began earlier with the contacts with ships' crew, or only later with the construction of several Spanish missions at Ventura, Santa Barbara, Lompoc, Santa Inez, and San Luis Obispo, the Chumash were eventually devastated by Old World diseases such as influenza and small pox, to which they had no immunological resistance. By 1900, their numbers had declined to just 200. According to some reports, there are now some 5,000 Chumash peoples.
Anthropologists eagerly sought Chumash baskets as prime examples of the craft, and two of the finest collections are at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC and the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) in Paris, France. The Museum of Natural History at Santa Barbara is believed to have the largest collection of Chumash baskets.
Several related Chumashan languages were spoken. There are no longer any living native speakers, although they are well documented in the unpublished fieldnotes of linguist John Peabody Harrington. Especially well documented are the Barbareño, Ineseño, and Ventureño dialects. Several Chumash families are working to revitalize the language.
The Chumash of the Northern Channel Islands were at the center of an intense regional trade network. Beads made from olivella shells were manufactured on the Channel Islands and used as a form of currency by the Chumash. These shell beads were traded to neighboring groups and have been found throughout alta California. Over the course of late prehistory, millions of shell beads were manufactured and traded from Santa Cruz Island. It has been suggested that exclusive control over stone quarries used to manufacture the drills needed in bead production may have played a role in the development of social complexity in Chumash society.
Some researchers believe the Chumash may have been visited by Polynesians between AD 400 and 800, nearly 1,000 years before Christopher Columbus reached The Americas. Although the concept is rejected by most archaeologists who work with the Chumash culture, studies published in peer-reviewed journals have given the idea greater plausibility. The Chumash advanced sewn-plank canoe design, which is used throughout the Polynesian Islands but is unknown in North America except by those two tribes, is cited as the chief evidence for contact. Comparative linguistics also may provide evidence as the Chumash word for "sewn-plank canoe," tomolo'o, may have been derived from kumulā'au, the Polynesian word for the redwood logs used in that construction. However, the language comparison is generally considered tentative. Furthermore, the development of the Chumash plank canoe is fairly well represented in the archaeological record and spans a time period of several centuries. This evidence strongly suggests that the Tomol was an indigenous invention.
In addition to the Santa Ynez Band, a second group, the Chumash Coastal Band, is attempting to gain federal recognition.
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