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Location: Central California coast (Alameda, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Benito Counties)

Language: Penutian family

1770 estimate:
1910 Census: not known

The people included within the Costanoan (also known as Ohlone) group actually spoke at least eight different languages and lived in about 50 separate tribelets, or groups of villages.  The Costanoan people left many shell mounds along the ocean and bays.  Explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno met some of these people in 1602 along the Monterey coast.  Seven Spanish missions were built in Costanoan territory between 1770 and 1797.


Costanoan territory extended along the Pacific coast from San Francisco Bay south to Point Sur, and inland to the coast range of mountains.  Each of the many tribelets held a certain area.  A tribelet was led by a headman (actually, either a man or woman) who inherited the position from the old headman, but only with the consent of the people.  The headman directed ceremonies, hosted visitors, and planned the hunting and food gathering activities, together with a council of village elders.  Costanoan headmen may have had assistants, known as speakers, to help them.

The name Costanoan comes from the Spanish Costaños, meaning coast people.  The early  people did not use the term, but rather called themselves the people in their own language, which differed from group to group. 


Most Costanoans made their houses with a round framework of poles covered with bunches of grass, tule reeds, or ferns.  The thatch was tied on with flexible willow branches.  A fireplace was in the middle of the house.  Some Costanoans made their houses from slabs of redwood and redwood bark, leaned together in a cone shape.  Even permanent houses did not last long.  Every year or two the old houses were burned down and new ones built.

The largest village in each tribelet probably had an assembly house or dance house in the middle of the village.  Some of these may have been simply round enclosures with fences made of brush.  Others had domed roofs of thatch.  Some were large enough to hold 200 people.

Small sweathouses were made by digging into the banks of a stream and covering the entrance with brush.  Both men and women used the sweathouse. 


Because of their location near the ocean, the Costanoans depended on shellfish such as mussels and abalone for food.  Sea lions were hunted along the beach, and if a whale was washed ashore, the meat was taken.  Steelhead, salmon, sturgeon, and lamprey eels were caught in the rivers using dip and seine nets and fish traps.  Another method was to build bonfires along the river at night, which attracted the fish to come close enough to be speared.

Waterfowl such as ducks and geese were caught with nets; quail were taken in traps; other birds were brought down by throwing a bola (pieces of bone tied to a string).  The list of animals eaten by the Costanoans includes deer, grizzly bear, elk, antelope, mountain lion, dog, skunk, raccoon, rabbit, squirrel, woodrat, mouse and mole.  Reptiles and insects (grasshoppers, caterpillars, wasps) were also eaten.       

Acorns were an important plant food for the Costanoans, though in the villages closest to the coast, seeds were more plentiful than acorns.  Seeds from various plants were roasted on hot coals.  Four kinds of oak trees (coast live oak, valley oak, tanbark oak, black oak) grew in this area.  Other nuts that were eaten were from the buckeye, laurel, and hazel trees.  Berries, wild grapes, roots (including wild onion and wild carrot), clover, and thistles added to the diet.  A sweet drink was made from the berries of the manzanita bush.


Costanoan women wore two-piece aprons.  A small front apron was made of tule reed or grass, braided and fastened to a waist cord.  A larger back apron was made of deer or sea otter skin.  Men and boys usually did not wear any clothing.  In cold weather, men and women both used robes made of animal skins or duck feathers.  Sometime the men put a layer of mud on their body, which kept them warm.  Costanoans did not wear anything on their feet nor on their heads.  Both men and women wore their hair long, but women had their hair cut across their forehead in bangs.  Men sometimes braided their hair or tied it up with a rawhide thong.  Tattooing was done on the face, forehead, and arms.  Earrings, nose rings, and necklaces were made of olivella and abalone shells, and of feathers. 


To cross San Francisco Bay, the people used rafts made of tule reeds.  Bundles of reeds were bound together to make a canoe-shaped raft.  The men used paddles with blades at both ends to move the raft.  Stone anchors may have been used with the rafts. 

Baskets made by the Costanoans were mostly of the twined type, such as were made by northern California groups.  Willow, rush, tule, and pieces of roots were twined to form the baskets, which were decorated with shells, feathers, and woodpecker scalps.  Baskets were important for gathering, storing, and cooking food.  One type of basket was used to beat the seeds from plants.  Others were used as traps to catch fish and small animals, as   baby cradles, water jugs, and mush bowls. 

Cord and string were made from the fibers of the milkweed, nettle, and hemp plants.  From the cord, nets were made for use in fishing and hunting.  Bows and arrows were also used in hunting.  The bows were backed with sinew (animal tendon) and had bowstrings made of sinew.  Arrows had three feathers and tips made of stone or bone.  Hunters carried their arrows in quivers made of fox skin. 

Stone was used to make tools for pounding and grinding.  A type of rock called chert was found in Costanoan territory.  Obsidian (volcanic glass) was gotten in trade from groups to the north.  Both stone and wooden mortars and pestles were used to grind acorns and seeds.   


The Costanoans had clamshell beads which were used as money by many early California groups.  These pieces of shell were shaped into disks, holes were punched, and the disks were strung on strings.  They could be worn as necklaces as well as used in trade.  The Costanoans traded mussels, abalone shells and dried abalone meat, and salt to the Yokuts who lived in the great valley east of the coast.  From the Yokuts they got piñon nuts.  The Costanoans may also have supplied some hunting bows and salt to the Plains and Sierra Miwok.  The Miwok likely paid for these items with clamshell beads.


A Costanoan celebration of the sun included prayers and offerings of seeds and shells, along with the blowing of smoke toward the sky.  Other offerings were made in the hope of having good hunting and fishing.  Feathers on sticks were used as charms.  Offerings of feathers, food, and strips of rabbitskin were attached to the tops of poles.

Many dances were done by the Costanoans, some by men only and some by women only.  Feathered headdresses were worn by dancers, who painted their faces and bodies with white and red dye.

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