The Rich Hunter Gatherer Societies of the Pacific Coast

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Pacific Northwest Totem Pole

Episode 23: Late Period Cultures of the Pacific Coast

Ancient Civilizations of North America

Dr Edwin Barnhart (2018)

Film Review

Resources were so rich along the Pacific Coast (from California to Alaska) that indigenous Americans had no need to develop agriculture. Instead they developed complex sedentary hunter gatherer societies. The Pacific Coast cultures were the most densely populated region of pre-Columbian North America, representing one-fifth of the total population.

The coastal peoples spoke 100 different languages and belonged to 500 distinct tribes.

Despite plentiful resources, they all operated under the philosophy that resources had to be conserved and shared and developed elaborate food procuring and storage technologies, as well as social hierarchies for cooperative and trade.

Southern California

In southern California, pre-Columbian coastal and inland tribes traded with each other for thousands of years. First European contact occurred in 1542, with the arrival of explorer Juan Rodgriguez Cabrillo. In 1769, the Spanish returned and built a military presidium in San Diego.

The region was divided into three distinct zones:

  • Channel islands – where 30-foot four man boots went spear fishing for tuna, halibut, seal lions, sword fish.
  • Coastal – where early peoples fished and collected shellfish.
  • Inland – where people learned the technology of leaching acorns and hunted dear and small game. The bow and arrow were essential both for hunting and border security.

Different zones traded with one other, using carved olivella shells (found on the outer islands) as currency. People lived in villages of hundreds of dome-shaped homes built of willow branches covered with grass with leaving a roof smoke hole. Most homes housed 3-5 families and most villages had large communal storage pits. Worshiping the sun as the primary deity, these societies stratified into commoners (hunters and gatherers), elites (shamans, astronomer priests and a policing force) and chiefs and their families. Male homosexual transvestites had special status.* Regional chiefs managed trade relationships through feasts, lavish gifts and occasional wars.

Pacific Northwest

Extending from the Alaska panhandle through Oregon, this region was more bellicose. Residents depended mainly on ocean fisheries and salmon river runs for food.

  • Early Pacific Period (4400-1800 BC) – residents lived in pit houses and buried their dead in shell middens. Bone and antler microblades replaced stone harpoon tips, and they used stone axes to cut down trees and smaller tools for carving.
  • Middle Pacific Period (1800 BC – 500 AD) – residents transitioned to clan-based plank houses. The earliest plank house (1200 BC) is at the Paul Mason site in British Columbia. The period was marked by a new composite harpoon as salmon fishing intensified. It also provides the earliest evidence of warfare.
  • Late Pacific Period (500 – 1775 AD) – the Ozette Site on Washington State’s west coast features plank houses large enough for the entire clan. Villages consisted of multiple clans and village groups. These plank houses had sturdy cedar frames and walls and featured the same distinctive art found on totem poles.

Wood plank house and cedar totam pole, artifact project inspiration for P. | Pacific northwest ...

Each clan had its own chief and each village had a head chief. Slaves (either captured or born into slavery) had the lowest social ranking.** During the summer salmon run, the whole village move up river, pulling planks off their houses to support the belonging they loaded onto their canoes.

Body ornamentation included facial piercing known as labrettes  and cranial deformation.

(a-c) Artificial cranial deformation with a left parietal healed... | Download Scientific Diagram

The potlatch was a gift-giving social event used in place of currency to share and distribute goods.

With the appearance of a wide range of weapons around 500 AD, villages were relocated to hilltops and defended them with wooden palisades. Tribes went to war over resources, the need for slaves, wife swaps and in response to humiliation. Wars were conducted with 60 foot war canoes with dozens of fully armored warriors. Some groups sailed to the California coast to look for slaves.

*This was also seen in some Mississippian societies.

**According to David Graeber and David Wengrow in their their 2021 The Dawn of Everything, slavery arose in the Pacific Northwest when “an ambitious aristocracy found itself unable to reduce its free subjects to a dependable workforce.” (page 207) In other words, resources were so abundant they couldn’t force commoners to work for them. Graeber and Wengrow see this as the primary cause of slavery everywhere.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

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