The Channel Islands are located across from the California coast and consist of a total of eight islands. Aside from the popularly visited Santa Catalina Island, the Channel Islands are uninhabited which has given them a mysterious and desolate image. But these islands have not always been uninhabited, and archeological evidence suggests that Chumash Indians lived on the northern Channel Islands for thousands of years, as early as 13,000 years ago and up until the 19th century.
Santa Cruz Island held the largest Island Chumash populations but village settlements have been found through out the islands. Anacapa island, the smallest of the islands, is likely to have been inhabited by the Chumash only as a seasonal settlement due to the lack of a consistent water source. The Chumash civilization thrived on the islands due to an economy highly dependent on the sea for harvesting ocean resources and trading with neighbors.
The Chumash Island populations had an elaborate trade network in which trade took place between groups on other islands and on the mainland. They utilized a seafaring plank canoe referred to as tomol made from redwood trees which they used to cross ancient waters. The tomols ranged in length from 8 to 30 feet, could carry up to 10 people, and are known to be the oldest form of watercraft in North America!
The Chumash relied on shell beads as a form of currency which was essential in facilitating their economy and trade. In fact, the word Chumash is derived from the word Michumash which means “makers of shell bead money”!
Santa Cruz Island was known to the Island Chumash as Limuw, which means “in the sea”. The ocean was such a vital resource to Indian Chumash life that canoe builders were ranked in the highest class along with priests, and artisians. The middle class was made up of workers, hunters and fishermen, while the lowest class was the poor.
Aside from tomols and their shell bead currency, the Chumash are also popular for cave paintings and woven baskets which were important for every day life. When European explorers arrived on the Channel Islands in the 16th century, they found a highly socially and politically complex society. The fascinating merritime culture of the Island Chumash shows how wonderful our ocean is, as it has helped build the world’s most complex societies.