Archaeological Evidence of Chumash Social Complexity

Chumash Tomol (National Geographic)

Chumash Tomol (National Geographic)

Inferring the social complexity (also known as the “social inequality”) of a settlement from solely its material remains is a common task in archeology. Socially complex settlements have a social structure with a division of labor based on more than age and gender and a hierarchical ranking of certain groups with differential access to resources and power. A socially complex society implies an integration of differentiated social roles into a cohesive society with uniform expressions of solidarity or difference via language and culture–things that are variously manifest in its material culture.

Social complexity has been categorized into successive levels of social complexity, from simple to complex, based on various patterns of kinship, subsistence, technologies, exchange, population density or scale of the settlement and political organization. Here are some influential typologies of the social evolutionary stages of sociocultural integration, from simple to complex societies:

  • Savagery, Barbarism, Civilized by 19th century evolutionist Louis Henry Morgan (Morgan 2000[1877]:7)
  • Band, Tribe, Chiefdom, State typology based on political organization and the “managerial benefits” of each by Elman R. Service (Service 1975:303)
  • Egalitarian, Ranked, Stratified, Ranked Societies based on property ownership and class conflict by Morton H. Fried (Fried 1967)
  • Family Group, Local Group, Regional Polity (Chiefdom, Early-State, Nation-State) by Johnson and Earle (Johnson 2000:36; 246)
    Johnson 2000:246).
  • Egalitarian, Transegalitarian, Stratified based on private ownership of resources and institutionalized political inequality by archeologist Brian Hayden (Hayden 2007).

The social complexity of the prehistoric Chumash has been described as “hunter-gatherer”, “complex hunter-gatherer”, “transegalitarian” and as “a simple chiefdom maritime culture” (Arnold 1992:60; Gamble 2008:6; Hayden 2007:241; Kroeber 1971:28; Timbrook 1982:164). This paper will review several types of archeological evidence of the emergence of Chumash social complexity before European contact in 1769 (with the arrival of the expedition of Father Juan Crespí) (Gamble 2008:1).

Map of Chumash Settlement Area (Lompoc Museum)

Map of Chumash Settlement Area (Lompoc Museum)

Before having their culture and demographics decimated by European contact, the Chumash had an extraordinarily populous (15,000 to 20,000 people) and socially complex culture of sedentary complex hunter-gatherers who controlled regional trade networks, used currency and had ocean voyaging boats (Gamble 2008:2). The Chumash lived in villages along the coast of California from Topanga Canyon, to the south, and Malibu, Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and on up to the Monterey County line to the North and as well as on the Santa Barbara Channel Islands (Gamble 2008:6).

Theories of Social Complexity

The emergence of social complexity (also known as “social inequality,” “social stratification” or “social hierarchy”) is generally a gradual process as a society “responds to quantative change in variables of intensification, integration, and stratification” according to Johnson and Earl (Johnson  2000:35). There is “no precise operational definition for social inquality” according to Brian Hayden (Hayden 2007). However, features of rank-societies include a locally abundant food source, an increase in population density with village settlements, and a redistributive economy/exchange network according to Morton Fried (1967:111).

Material markers of social complexity include the following:

Social inequality is made possible by food surplus and conditions of periodic population-carrying capacity imbalances where an “intensive labor investment is required to avert crises, thus establishing situations with high potential for the organization and manipulation of labor” according to Jeanne Arnold (Arnold 1992:62). “Unfortunately, social inequality has no precise operational definition,” according to Brian Hayden (2007:232). The taxonomy of social inequality describes, more or less, multivariate levels of social complexity on a continuum (Hayden 2007:245).

[Social] stratification refers to the institutionalized rights and privileges usually involving hereditary status, economic rights, and roles,” according to Hayden (2007:233). Like the Northwest Coast Indians, the Chumash had a stratified society based on economic and social stratification (wealth) but without significant political stratification of one community controlling another in a regional polity (Hayden 2007:233).

Social inequality can be viewed on two axis: vertical inequality such as with a socially stratified society where there in unequal power in a chain of command and horizontal inequality characterized by different roles or craft specialist who are unequal within their specialty’s roles but are equal with others outside these roles (Hayden 2007:235).

Like “social inequality”, social complexity with social stratification or a  “social hierarchy” does not have a precise operational definition with agreed upon material correlates. However, a social hierarchy can be inferred by the existence of material items that indicate significant differences in the control or ownership of property and wealth (Hayden 2007:233).  For example, craft specialization is associated with social complexity of hierarchical societies in that craft specialists specialize in producing objects and technologies that help maintain and legitimize elite power (Costin 2007:274).

Egalitarian societies are hunter-gatherer societies in areas with scarce resources and feature “widespread sharing but without significant private ownership of resources” (Hayden 2007:232).

Transegalitarian societies are  between egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups and stratified chiefdoms (Hayden 2007:232). They feature “private ownership of resources, low levels of sharing, and institutionalized hierarchies based ultimately on wealth (but also including ritual, kingship, and political dominance” (Hayden 2007:232). The production and re-distribution of food surpluses, the use of prestige goods, and communal feasting patterns are characteristics of transegalitarian societies.

Characteristics of complex hunter-gatherers include: sedentism, intensified food production, food storage, increased population densities, production and trade of prestige items, warfare, and social hierarchies that may include “Big Man” leaders or hereditary chiefs and slavery (Hayden 2007:241-242). The community sizes of complex hunter-gatherers sometimes exceed 1,000 people (Hayden 2007:242).

The term chiefdom is has been problematic as there has not been agreement on its features. Most chiefdoms were based on intensive agriculture but there are some in North America that were based on abundant seafood sources and food storage such as the Northwest Coast Indians and the Chumash (Hayden 2007:246). Simple chiefdoms have populations in the thousands and control one village in an exchange network (Haydon 2007:246).  Complex chiefdoms have populations in the tens of thousands and generally control more than one village in a regional exchange network such as the Chumash chiefdom of Santa Cruz Island (Hayden 2007:246). Robert L. Caneiro defined a chiefdom as “An autonomous political unit comprising a number of villages or communities under the permanent control of a paramount chief” (Carneiro 1981: 45).

Chumash Basket (Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History)

Chumash Basket (Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History)

The archeologically recoverable material that correlates to social complexity include “mortuary indicators (osteology, size of burial, grave goods, status dimensions, collective burials), prestige items and distributions, hoards, iconography, regional settlement patterns, house sizes and quality, special structures and [public] monuments, and restricted special spaces” (Hayden 2007:233). “Archeologists must use a multidimensional approach to complexity; neither mortuary data nor any other line of evidence can be used alone to assess social inequality,” according to Jeanne Arnold (Arnold 1992:68).

 Theories for the emergence of social complexity

Functionalist theories for the emergence of social complexity include the need for environmental manipulation by the group to reduce risk of food insecurity such as seasonal burning to encourage the growth of certain plant resources such as was done by the Chumash per ethnohistoric accounts (Timbrook 1982:164). Wittfogel’s “hydralic hypothesis” states that agricultural surplus, the engine of social complexity in state societies, was made possible in an arid or seasonal environment by the introduction of water irrigation (Gilman 1981:2). The redistributive and warfare variant of the functionalist model explains the emergence of a permanent elite class in order to gain control of resources and manage re-distributive exchange networks of goods for the greater good of the community (Gilman1981:3). However, there are too many instances of elite hunter-gatherers (such as the Ali’i in Hawaii) controlling surplus at the expense of the common good. This brings us to the Marxist or materialist theory of the emergence of stratified societies whereby elites gain their permanent inherited status by “controlling the means of production” by restricting access to both resources and enabling the production of surplus food and craft production thus fostering the dependency of non-elites and controlling non-kin household production (Gilman 1981:5; Johnson 2000:254). The redistribution of stored surplus by a chief acts as a sort of political insurance policy to maintain support of the community when food production falls below their needs.

Chumash Social Complexity

For the Chumash, the material correlates of social complexity first appeared in the archeological record in significant abundance between A.D. 800-1350 (Arnold 1992:66; Jones 1999: 138; Walker 1986:321). This was during a period of global climate change A.D. 1150-1300 that is is known as the “Medieval Warm Period” (Fagan 2008 ). It was characterized in the Chumash settlement areas by resource stress with “epic droughts” and “low marine productivity” from evidence of “low lake levels and narrow tree ring bands”  (Johnson 2012a; Jones 1999:138).

Chumash Shell Bead Money (Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History)

Chumash Shell Bead Currency (Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History)

The years during this period of climate change, A.D. 1150-1300, is known as the Middle-Late Transitional period of Chumash culture and is characterized in the archeological record of the Chumash with signs of increased specialized craft production and violence on Santa Cruz Island (Arnold 1992:66; Walker 1986: 326). It was during the Middle-Late Transitional Period that the intensive production of microliths (stone drills for shell bead production) and Olivella shell bead currency first appear on Santa Cruz Island (Arnold 1992:66).

There is disagreement about when hereditary inequality appeared in the Chumash culture. According to Chester King, ascribed status appeared as early as the late Early period (5500-600 B.C.) with a couple of burials containing more cylindrical clam beads than others. Many scholars criticized King’s assertion for his inadequate sample size (five burials) and the fact that the burials were never dated (Arnold 1992:68; Gamble 2008:10). More conclusive mortuary evidence shows that elite lineages didn’t appear until the Late and historic periods (A.D. 1300-1782) after the period of climate change and decreased terrestrial and marine food productivity per Arnold (Arnold 1992:67). Kennett and Kennett agree with Arnold about climate change but disagree with her theory of ecologic impacts of the Late and historic periods, saying that they were periods of increased productivity of marine resources during that time which sustained population growth and  “sedentism, an intensification of fishing practices, more trade, and an increase in regional violence” (Gamble 2008:10). According to Hayden’s model of the emergence of social complexity, it is resource abundance with the intensification of fishing practices, food storage and surplus that is necessary for “creating inequalities, hierarchy, and economic complexity” (Gamble 2008:13).

With food surplus, social inequality, large population densities and a regional trade network could the pre-Columbina Chumash be categorized as Chiefdom? Some archeologists say “yes”.

“There are no archaeological indicators of paramountcy in the region,” according to Arnold (Arnold 1992:68). However, at the time of European contact, island and coastal village population densities were significantly higher than normal for hunter-gatherer populations with an estimated 4-9 persons per sq. km (Arnold 1995:68). The high population densities, sedentarism and regional exchange networks of the Chumash indicate a “permanent administrative leadership” such as a simple chiefdom according to Jean Arnold (Arnold 1995:68). As a simple chiefdom Chumash society was composed of complex hunter-gatherer villages linked by an exchange network and individualizing village-based chiefdoms. The Chumash shared many cultural traits such as their religion but they were not  a “cultural nor a linguistic entity per se” since the the Chumash settlements had diverse subsistence practices and languages. There are a total of three geographically based language dialects identified for the pre-Columbian Chumash: Northern Chumash (San Luis Obispo region), Central Chumash (Santa Barbara and Ventura regions) and Island Chumash (Gamble 2008:8).

The social complexity and control of non-kin household labor by the Chumash was made possible, in part, by periodic population-food imbalances and the selective access items such as the seafaring tomols and exchange of surplus in the form of their shell bead currency, prestige items and food such as the plentiful marine foods (shellfish, pinnipeds, coastal and deep water fish). The surplus food was made more accessible by their specialized maritime technology, the tomol, and food storage of seasonal plant foods such as acorns, nuts and seeds such as chia (Arnold 1992:62, 66; Gamble 2008:6).


13,000 year old "Arlington Spring Woman" (Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History)

13,000 year old “Arlington Springs Woman” (Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History)

The prehistoric Chumash controlled a vast exchange network, produced their own currency of shell beads, and had sophisticated food production and craft specialization. They technology and production of with deep sea wooden-plank boats called tomols, was limited to guilds based on kinship. The tomols were status objects exclusive to the hereditary elites as well as a valuable deep sea fishing technology that produced food surpluses which enabled complexity. The tomols allowed the pre-Columbian Chumash to safely ferry passengers from their settlements on the Channel Islands to the mainland and deliver people, trade goods, and food surpluses up and down the mainland coast as early as 11,000 to 13, 000 years ago (Gamble 2008:2; Torben 2004:301).

In fact, the first people to reach North America may have arrived here by sea taking a coastal route down the Pacific Coast from Asia at the end of the Pleistocene, 15,000 to 10,000 years ago. The earliest evidence of humans reaching North America are from human remains found at Arlington Springs on Santa Rosa Island in the Channel Islands dating 13,000 years ago. They belonged to a woman (Johnson 2012b).


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