Copyright © by Toucan Valley Publications, Inc. | Source Citation


Location: Southern California coast (Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties)

Language: Hokan family

1770 estimate:
1910 Census: 74

The Chumash were the first early Californians to be visited by Spanish explorers when Juan Cabrillo sailed along their coast in 1542.  Cabrillo left a record of the people and their villages, as did Sebastián Vizcaíno in 1602.   The Chumash were destroyed by life at the missions of Santa Ynez, San  Buenaventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and La Purisima Concepcion  between 1772 and 1834.


The Barbareño, who lived on the coast of the Santa Barbara Channel, were the best known of the Chumash people.  There were many more villages along the coast, both here and to the north, than there were inland.  There were also Chumash villages on three of the Channel Islands.  The names of several hundred Chumash villages are recorded.            

There were at least six Chumash languages. The name Chumash comes from the word used by the people for one of the islands, Mi-tcú-mac.  They did not use this name to refer to themselves.


A Spanish explorer, Longinos Martinez, in 1792 described the Chumash village.  "They arrange their houses in groups.  The houses are well constructed, round like an oven, spacious and fairly comfortable; light enters from a hole in the roof.  Their beds are made on frames and they cover themselves with skins and shawls.  The beds have divisions between them like the cabins of a ship, so that if many people sleep in one house, they do not see one another.  In the middle of the floor they make a fire for cooking seeds, fish, and other foods."

The houses, some of which were as much as 50 feet across, were made with a frame of poles arranged in a circle, then arched inward to meet in the middle.  Other poles were fastened across these poles, and the frame was covered with bundles of grass or tule reeds.  Reed mats were used on the floor and beds.  Unlike most early Californians, the Chumash slept in beds raised off the ground.  Away from the Channel coastal villages, houses were usually smaller.

Each village had a sweathouse, built around a hole dug in the ground.  A low frame of poles was covered with brush and earth.  The door was an opening in the roof, and the men used a ladder to climb down inside.


The most important food for the Chumash was the acorn, which they gathered from the live oak trees.  Those who lived along the coast also depended on sea food.  They ate many ocean fish (shark, sea bass, halibut, bonito) as well as mussels, barnacles, and clams.  Abalone was a main food on the islands. 

Hunting was done on both sea and land.  Seals, sea otters, and porpoises were taken with harpoons from canoes, but whales were eaten only when they were washed ashore.  Deer, coyote, fox, rabbits, ducks and geese added to the food supply.

The amole, or soap plant, was a favorite of the Chumash.  The bulb was eaten, after being roasted.  The plant also furnished soap for washing, and husks for making brushes.  Other plant foods gathered were pine nuts, wild cherries, cattails, berries,  mushrooms, and many types of seeds.


Chumash women wore a double apron of deerskin,  hanging from the waist to the knees, with the edges fringed and decorated with shells.  Men often wore nothing.  For cold weather, cloaks were woven from the skins of rabbit, fox, or sea otters.  Feather cloaks were made by twisting feathers with cord, then weaving the strips together.  Necklaces and earrings were made of shell and bone.  The Chumash also decorated themselves by painting designs on their bodies.  Each village had a special design.


Canoes made by the Chumash were admired by the Spanish explorers.  Unlike any other early California people, the Chumash made canoes from several planks of pine wood, joined at the seams with cord and pitch.  The canoes were from 12 to 30 feet long, and were paddled by two men.  They were used for travel along the coast and out to the Channel Islands.  Only those Chumash who lived along the Channel coast made these canoes.  Those who lived further north on the coast (known as the Obispeño and the Purisimeño) did not make canoes, but used simple tule reed rafts for crossing small bays. 

Other fine woodworking was done by the Chumash,  who made wooden plates, bowls, and boxes.  Pieces of whalebone were used to split the wood, which was then carved and finished with great skill.  They also used steatite, a type of stone, to make skillets and pots for cooking.  The steatite came from Santa Catalina Island, in neighboring Gabrielino area.  Local sandstone was used to make large storage pots.  Objects were often decorated with shell beads.  Asphaltum, found along the Channel, was used to attach shells to pots, to seal the canoes, and to fasten arrow and spear points to the shafts.

The tools used to shape objects from wood and stone were simple scrapers of abalone or other shells, knife blades of flint, and sharp pieces of obsidian (volcanic glass).  Whalebone, deer and bear bones, and swordfish bills were used as wedges and scrapers.  Needles, awls, and fish hooks were  made from bone.  Holes were drilled in wood, shell, bone or stone by means of a piece of sharp flint set in the end of a wooden rod that was turned by rolling between the palms of the hand.  Bristles of the sea lion were used as needles by the island Chumash.  Rope was made from the yucca plant; string was made from hemp, nettle, or milkweed plants.

The Chumash were not only skilled in working with wood and stone, but also in basketmaking.  They used both the coiling and the twining methods.  When they wanted the baskets to hold water, they put finely ground asphaltum inside the basket and then dropped in some hot stones.  The stones melted the tar of the asphaltum and it filled in the spaces in the weave of the basket, making it water-tight. 


It is likely that the Chumash were the supply source for southern California for the clamshell disk beads used as money by most of the central and southern Californians.  The giant Pismo clam shell was broken into pieces, rounded into disks, holes punched in the middle, and the disks strung on strings.  Long tube-shaped beads, as much as 3½ inches long and made from other shells, were also valued.

With the Yokuts to the northeast, the Chumash traded shells and other seashore items for obsidian, salt, antelope and elk skins, and herbs.  They also traded with the Salinan to the north and the Kitanemuk to the east.


While a few other early Californians left rock paintings, those of the Chumash are among the most interesting in the United States.  These rock paintings probably had some religious or ceremonial function.  The sites of the paintings, high in the coastal mountain range away from the villages, may have been sacred spots for the people. 

Where food was easy to get, the people had more time for games, singing, and dancing.  Each Chumash village had a flat area for dancing and ceremonies.  They had no drums, but used flutes made of wood or bone, whistles, the musical bow, and rattles.

Go to Top