The Kiliwa are an aboriginal people of northern Baja California, Mexico. They occupied a territory lying between the Cochimí on the south and the Paipai on the north, and extending from San Felipe on the Gulf of California to San Quintín on the Pacific coast.
The Ñakipa have sometimes been distinguished from the Kiliwa as a separate ethnolinguistic group within the southwestern portion of what is here considered Kiliwa territory. The limited linguistic evidence that is available for the Ñakipa indicates that they spoke the same language as the eastern Kiliwa.
Kiliwa belongs to the Yuman linguistic family, which may form part of the hypothetical Hokan linguistic phylum. Kiliwa is the southernmost representative of the family, and the one that is most distinct from the remaining Yuman languages, which constitute Core Yuman. The Kiliwa's neighbors to the south, the Cochimí, spoke a language or a family of languages that was closely related to but not within the Yuman family. Consequently, the Kiliwa lie at the historic "center of gravity" for the differentiation of Yuman from Cochimí and of the Yuman branches from each other.
Linguistic prehistorians are not in agreement as to whether the Kiliwa's linguistic ancestors are most likely to have migrated into the Baja California peninsula from the north separately from the ancestors of the Cochimí and the Core Yumans, or whether they became differentiated from those groups in place. The controversial technique of glottochronology suggests that the separation of Kiliwa from Core Yuman may have occurred about 2,000-3,000 years ago.
As recently as the 1930s, it was reported that members of the native community universally spoke Kiliwa as their first language. At the start of the twenty-first century, Kiliwa is still spoken; a 2000 census reported 52 speakers. However, the language is considered to be in danger of extinction.
Radiocarbon dates and Clovis points from farther south on the peninsula suggest that the initial occupation to the north must have occurred prior to 11,000 years ago.
Meigs suggested that the aboriginal population of the Kiliwa was about 1,300 individuals, or a density of about 0.3 persons per square kilometer. He excluded the southwestern "Ñakipa" territory from his estimates, which would raise the total to at least 2,000. Meigs considered his estimate to be a "conservative" one. However, Roger C. Owen has argued that Meigs' population estimates were substantially too high.
Aboriginal Kiliwa subsistence was based on hunting and gathering of natural animal and plants rather than on agriculture. At least two dozen different plants were food resources, and many others were used for medicine or as materials for construction or craft products. Pit-roasted Agave (mescal; ječà) was the most important plant food. In the fall season, harvesting of acorns and pine nuts from the higher-elevation portions of Kiliwa territory was a major activity.
Rabbits and deer were the most important animal food sources, but a wide range of others were also hunted, including pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, medium-sized mammals such as mountain lions, many small mammal species, birds, reptiles, fish, and shellfish. Jackrabbits and quail were hunted communally, by being driven into nets. Treks were made to San Felipe on the east coast to harvest fish and shellfish and to collect salt.
Crop growing and stock raising were introduced during the historic period. Another highly valued food resource that was introduced during the historic period was wild honey.
The traditional material culture of the Kiliwa was not highly elaborate, as would be expected for a seasonally mobile group.
Traditional leadership roles in communities and kin groups were held on a hereditary basis, but subject to an assessment of the individual leader's competence. Leaders' authority does not seem to have been extensive.
Kinship and community membership seems to have been defined to a large extent on the basis of patrilineal inheritance. Two levels of patrilineages (or clans, sibs) were recognized, corresponding to the šimułs of other western Yuman groups. Maselkwa were the smaller, more strongly localized groups. Several maselkwa might collectively constitute an ichiupu. On the broadest level, all Kiliwa were believed to be descended from four mythic brothers, the sons of the creator.
Social recreations included a variety of games: racing with balls, shinny, top spinning, archery, dice, a guessing game, and, most importantly, peón. Music was produced by singing and by instruments, including flutes, rattles, clappers, and bullroarers.
Shamans were believed to be able to effect magical cures of disease or injuries, or to cause them. They presided at some religious ceremonies, and they were thought to transform themselves into animals or birds and to bring rain.
Most documented Kiliwa ceremonies were linked to rites of passage in the lives of individuals:
Traditional narratives are conventionally classed as myths, legends, tales, and oral histories. The oral literature recorded for the Kiliwa includes narratives that can be assigned to each of these categories.
The Kiliwa creation myth conspicuously diverges from those of the other Yuman-speaking groups. However, the Kiliwa name for the creator, Metipá, recalls similar figures in other Yuman myths.
The Kiliwa first encountered Europeans when Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo reached the San Quintín area in 1542. There were few subsequent contacts during the next two centuries. The Jesuit missionary-explorer Wenceslaus Linck came overland from the south into the eastern part of Kiliwa territory in 1766. The expedition to establish Spanish settlements in California, led by Gaspar de Portolà and Junípero Serra passed through the western portions.
The Dominican mission of Santo Domingo was founded in Kiliwa territory near the coast in 1775. It was followed by an inland mission of San Pedro Mártir in 1794. By around the time of Mexican independence in 1821, the population at the Kiliwa missions had sharply declined.
In 1929, Meigs reported that only 36 adult Kiliwa were then living, primarily at three settlements around Arroyo León, at San Isidoro, and in Valle Trinidad. Twenty years later in 1949, Hohenthal found 30 adult Kiliwa living at four settlements, including Arroyo León, Agua Caliente, La Parra, and Tepí.