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Humaliwo: An Ethnographic Overview of the Chumash in Malibu

" Humaliwo: Where The Surf Sounds Loudly "

by Mike Sampson, Associate State Archaeologist

The aboriginal people who occupied present-day Malibu Lagoon at the time of historic contact were the Ventureño Chumash.  The Chumash in total formerly occupied a wide area stretching along the coast from San Luis Obispo to Malibu, extending inland to the San Joaquin Valley, and included four Channel Islands, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, and Santa Rosa.  The territories of the six distinct Chumash groups are defined by differences in language spoken by the people of each area.  The six languages are related and subsumed under a broader Chumashan Language Family.

The name “Chumash” does not represent a traditional name employed by the aboriginal speakers of related Chumashan languages.  According to Anthropologist Sally McLendon, “There was, in fact, no single term of self-designation that was used by all the peoples now referred to as Chumash, since they did not consider themselves part of a single group.”  John Wesley Powell first used the term in an 1891 publication on North American Indian languages.  The term “Chumash” used to refer to native peoples as a group began with the 1925 publication of the Handbook of California Indians by UC Berkeley Anthropologist Alfred Kroeber.  Chumash is accepted today by Indian people and researchers as an ethnic designation.

Population estimates for pre-contact Chumash people show a range of numbers.  The late Alfred Kroeber, a prominent California Indian scholar, suggested a population size of 8,000 to 10,000 for the Chumash, while S. F. Cook and Robert Heizer, UC Berkeley Anthropologists, estimated a count of 18,000 to 22,000 people.  Chester King, an authority on the Chumash, argues that the population within Chumash territory prior to Spanish contact had been “between 15,000-20,000 people.”  Life in the Spanish missions, of which five stood within Chumash territory, caused an sizable decrease in total Chumash population numbers.  The effects of introduced diseases were particularly significant in causing the population decline, according to researchers.

The basic political unit within aboriginal Chumash society was a named town and its surrounding resource areas, and served as the basis by which an individual defined their social group.  The towns were permanent in nature and lasted for hundreds of years.  There were cases where towns would organize together into a federation directed by a particularly influential political leader.  Trade, ceremonies held jointly, and intermarriage served to bond people from separate towns.  These settlements often covered wide areas of land that could be separated by sizable geographic features. 

Chester King and John Johnson have documented Chumash towns located within the Santa Monica Mountains and Malibu area at the time of Spanish contact.  The Chumash town of Humaliwo is known to have been located on a high point next to Malibu Lagoon and is part of the State Park.  Humaliwo was an important center of Chumash life in this region in prehistoric and early historic times.  Another Chumash town known from historical records, identified as Ta’lopop, is located a few miles up Malibu Canyon from the lagoon; it is partially within Malibu Creek State Park. Research by Drs. King and Johnson have shown that Humaliwo  had ties to the aboriginal town of Tal’lopop , as well as, ties to the aboriginal towns of Sumo  (at Point Dume), Loxostox’ni   (probably at the mouth of Lechuza Canyon), Hipuk  (at Westlake Village), Lalimanux  (base of Conejo Grade), and Huwam  (also known as El Escopion  in Bell Canyon).   Information on the names of Chumash towns has been obtained from the accounts of Spanish explorers, the archives of Spanish Missions, and early 20th century anthropology work.

The aboriginal Chumash were characterized by a stratified social organization, where most social positions were attained at birth.  The hereditary chief, known as Wot, played the role of central figure of authority.  The chief managed food stores of the community as well as other objects of wealth, managed the territory, lead a town in war, and other role.  The chief sometimes had more than one wife.  His house would be larger than that of other members of the community.  Marriages between important families of towns many miles apart produced kinship ties over long and disparate geographic areas.

The size of Chumash households varied in size, with the typical household consisting of a nuclear family.  The typical aboriginal town held residential houses, as well as, sweat lodges, ceremonial structures, menstrual lodges, dance areas, acorn granaries, a cemetery, and other structures.  The Chumash typically occupied their main towns throughout most of the year.  The aboriginal Chumash would establish short-term camps away from the towns for food procurement purposes at specific seasons, as well as, to quarry stone, to process foods, to hunt, or to perform ceremonies.

The aboriginal Chumash are well recognized for their complex economic system that included a wide-ranging trade network.  Shell beads, in particular, served as the standard form of money.  Craft specialization among certain towns arose among the Chumash to support the economic and religious systems.  The extensive trade networks served to redistribute foods, tools, and the means of sustenance between towns in disparate environmental zones.  The aboriginal Chumash are also famous for their extraordinary accomplishments in rock art; most scholars associate rock art with ceremonies.  One famous rock art site, owned by California State Parks and open to the public for visitation, is Chumash Painted Cave.  Located in the mountains next to Santa Barbara, the site lies not far from State Highway 154 (San Marcos Pass) on Painted Cave Road.