Discovery of an ancient Chumash artifact sheds light on the tribe's complex history
BY AMY ASMAN
On a brisk October morning in 2007, local paleontologist Rex Saint Onge traveled up into the wooded hills of the Santa Lucia mountain range in San Luis Obispo County.
That day he was going to do a paleo survey of the land, looking for fossils and other markings made by olden-day rancheros. What he found, however,swiss replica watches was much more significant.
Clockwise from top right-hand corner: Arroyo Grande-based paleontologist Rex Saint Onge, Ralph Bishop, Daniel Diaz, and Joe Talaugon, founder of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts and Education Center, display a rubbing of the Chumash arborglyph found in San Luis Obispo County in 2007.
The discovery began when one of the men Saint Onge was working with asked if he wanted to see the "Scorpion Tree." Intrigued by the offer, Saint Onge followed the man to a secluded area dotted with oak trees.
The land, the man said, had once been inhabited by a Chumash family that perished during an influenza outbreak in 1918. The family's home, along with the infected bodies, was later burned to the ground to prevent the disease from spreading.
The only remnants of the family's existence were a few artifacts sprinkled near a large oak tree growing on the property: The Scorpion Tree.
After looking at the tree, Saint Onge learned why it got its name. Deeply carved into its smooth bark was an exotic motif resembling what appeared to be some kind of insect or reptilian creature.
Upon further inspection, Saint Onge was amazed by what he saw.
"I realized immediately that it was Native American and not a cowboy sign," said Saint Onge, who received most of his training at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. "After that, I immediately documented the site."
In his report, Saint Onge called the three-foot-long motif an arborglyph, which translates to "tree carving."
"It seemed to be the correct way to describe what I was seeing," he wrote in his report. "I had no idea, at the time, that it may have been the first time in Central Northwestern America one had been visually recognized."
Later analysis of the artifacts collected from the Chumash home revealed that all of the objects had been made circa 1845, and most likely disposed of around 1910. The analysis bolstered what Saint Onge had heard about the Chumash family living in the area. But the arborglyph was a whole different story.
Saint Onge recognized the basic design of the arborglyph from similar motifs he had seen at other sacred Chumash sites in California, such as Painted Rock and Painted Cave.
Over the years, archaeologists haven't established the repeated motif as an important Chumash religious symbol. The complex design depicts a multi-legged being wearing an ornate headdress. In most motifs, the headdress connects to a large, wheel-like figure, which is accompanied by a prominent star-like shape.
According to Chumash history, only shamans can draw these motifs--a fact that raises questions about the origin of the arborglyph.
The tree with the arborglyph, Saint Onge said, is at least 200 years old. So while it's possible that members of the Chumash family carved over the motif and therefore made it deeper, they were not the original artists.
In order to better understand the origin of the arborglyph and the meaning behind it, Saint Onge contacted several Chumash tribal members including Guadalupe resident and Chumash tribal member Joe Talaugon, whom he had met a year earlier.
A long-time civil rights activist, Talaugon founded the Guadalupe Cultural Arts and Education Center with his wife, Margie, five years ago as a way to bring more cultural awareness to the Central Coast. The Talaugons and their daughter, Karen Evangelista, showcase dozens of artifacts and art collections at the center.
Joe said they wanted to establish a center that would celebrate the area's cultural diversity, and educate current residents and tourists about its rich history. While much is known about the Central Coast's Spanish and Mexican history, very little is known about the land's original inhabitants.
The Chumash were the first people to live along the California coast, and survived for thousands of years before Europeans settled in the area. At one point, Chumash villages could be found all the way from Malibu to Paso Robles. Chumash villages such as Atajes, Lospe, Nipomu, and Ajuapas coexisted for hundreds of years in the area that today is Guadalupe.
A lack of public knowledge of the Chumash history deeply troubles Joe, as it does many other Chumash tribal members and people like Saint Onge.
Getting back to his roots:
Chumash tribal member Joe Talaugon explains the historical importance of his people on the Central Coast: "I've always believed that our people were intelligent."
"It's a challenge for all of us," Joe said. "We constantly have to fight against the establishment, what is already written and generally accepted about the Chumash people."
Doubts about the intelligence level of the ancient Chumash people and the ethnic roots of present-day Chumash people, said Talaugon and Saint Onge, have caused much of the facts about the tribe to become distorted.
"About 99 percent of the people I've met and talked to think the Chumash are dead," Saint Onge said.
Talaugon agreed, adding that many people even doubt that he and his fellow tribal members are actual Chumash descendants. He attributes this belief to his people's turbulent history.
After the Spanish came to California and began building Catholic missions, he said, many of the Chumash began to adopt Mexican names as a way of protecting their identities.
"If you research the Chumash [and their involvement with the Spanish], there is a clear history of abuse and forceful conversion into the Catholic Church," Talaugon said.
The abuse and forced conversion caused much of the Chumash culture and history, which was passed down orally from generation to generation, to be lost. European influence has also had an effect on how the Chumash and many other indigenous peoples are perceived in history.
"For hundreds of years, the Chumash have really taken a hit when it comes to their presumed level of intelligence or level of complexity," Saint Onge said.
So when Saint Onge presented Talaugon with the arborglyph--an artifact that could possibly prove the Chumash were a highly intelligent people--he jumped at the opportunity to become involved.
Rex Saint Onge, a paleontologist who trained at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, goes into depth about the Chumash arborglyph (pictured behind Saint Onge). He said that the carving is like the Rosetta Stone of the Chumash culture.
"I've always believed our people were intelligent," Talaugon said. "For a people to survive over 10,000 years, they really had to have some kind of scientific knowledge."
Their proof, Talaugon and Saint Onge said, was carved into a tree growing just miles away.
Saint Onge continued to study the components of the arborglyph and compare them with the similar motifs found at Painted Rock and Painted Cave. Eventually, he realized that the suspected headdress worn by the being was actually a rendering of the constellation Ursa Major, better known as the Big Dipper. The star-like shape connected to the headdress was actually the North Star.
For thousands of years, the Chumash have called Ursa Major ilihiy, which means "the Guardian," and called the North Star minimol, which means "Sky Coyote" or "Great Creator."
According to Chumash beliefs, the Guardian is said to keep watch over Sky Coyote by circling the star every 24 hours, similar to the way the Earth's rotation makes Ursa Major appear to circle the North Star in the same amount of time.
On top of the repeated motif, the sacred Chumash paintings found on Painted Rock and in Painted Cave also depict drawings of two human figures. In the drawings, a larger figure is showing a similar copy of the motif to a smaller figure. The smaller figure is posed with his hands on his hips and gazing skyward.
Saint Onge postulated that Chumash shamans would use the motif to teach younger generations about Sky Coyote (the Great Creator) and astronomy--a theory potentially authenticated by interviews conducted in the early 1900s between world-famous anthropologist John P. Harrington and Fernando Librado, who may have been one of the last Chumash shamans, before Librado's death in 1915.
Just the fact that ancient Chumash society was able to support astrological and religious experts like the shamans, Saint Onge said, proves its high level of intelligence and complexity.
"In order to become an expert in something, you need people who can feed and clothe and shelter you. You need the time to become an expert. You don't have time to go out hunting for food every night," Saint Onge said. "You have to have a complex society to support experts."
Along with teaching, shamans monitored the stars, migratory animals, and plants. Their knowledge was used to advance technology and understanding in their communities.
But, Saint Onge said, the shamans monitored the stars for another reason as well.
After using the U.S. Geological Survey to map the locations of the arborglyph, Painted Cave, Painted Rock, and Morro Rock--another sacred Chumash site--Saint Onge found that all of the sites and their corresponding motif artifacts pointed True North (the direction of the geographical North Pole from a given point).
According to Saint Onge, the Chumash used the motif of Ursa Major and the North Star to determine such sacred places. During the winter and summer solstices, Chumash shamans would journey to these places, using the motif as a navigation tool, and then hold religious ceremonies and paint their motifs.
Saint Onge said that he believes the shamanistic motifs are used to mark axis mundi, which means "the center of all things." The axis is marked by a sacred tree or cosmic mountain that serves as a gateway into the "sky world," or in European terms, Heaven.
"The fact that these major sites are all aligned True North is just astounding," he said.
The use of the symbol, he said, proves that the Chumash were a highly developed people who "lived under a single religion and a single Great Creator."
The discovery is something Saint Onge also said he feels privileged to be a part of.
As a descendant of the Algonquin people, a Native American tribe from the New England area, Saint Onge said that he's pleased his discoveries can bring some long-deserved accreditation to the Chumash people.
Talaugon agreed: "It has been my life ambition to be a part of something like this."
"Our goal is to tell the truth. Not to become ridiculous or radical," he said. "I believe through education we can get a lot of the information out there about what really happened to the Chumash and who they were as a people."
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Contact Staff Writer Amy Asman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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