The following is from Santa Barbara Day Hikes by Ray Ford
“The little Lizard, in order to find out what was going on in the world, would play the flute. And the Coyote, in order to take it in, would cock his ear.
And this is all—the hole of the flute is the pathway to thought.” --Kitsepawit
“There is this world in which we live, but there is also the one above us and and one below. Here, where we live, is the center of our world—it is the biggest island. And there are two giant serpents that hold up our world from below.
When they are tired they move, and that causes earthquakes.” --Maria Solares
The spirit of the mountains has not been lost. It is still lodged in these ancient rocks—a little more hidden now, but there nonetheless, no more so than in those places where the paintings are. There is one I call Wind Cave, and in the times I have spent there I have gotten a feeling for the mysterious world of the Chumash and the relationship they might have had with the spirit world.
There are twelve or thirteen other rock art sites in the Santa Ynez Mountains, most in inaccessible canyons or rock outcroppings in the midst of the chaparral, all with meanings equally well hidden and many more in the back country. This one is easily available only because West Camino Cielo Road is nearby.
The cave is not large, maybe forty feet in length and twenty feet high. It is more an arching overhang than a cave, but it shelters one of the very special places of the Santa Ynez Mountains, a place of the ancient people. The rock itself has a mottled appearance, and rows of small cup-like depressions fan across it. Cupules like these were grooved into the sandstone of many of the rock sites utilized by the Chumash as part of fertility ceremonies, and it was believed that they could cure sterility.
The dirt floor is smooth, charcoal grey, the result of hundreds of years of evening fires. There is the sense of many eons of moments spent by the Chumash in this place. Countless cycles, sunset and moonrise repeated time and again; ancient harmonies, the power of a universe in which the Chumash were intimately involved. The paintings here represent something intangible, something difficult to draw out of the artwork no matter how hard one tries.
What sets this apart from other Chumash sites are the steps on the far side of the enclosure, cut deeply into the sandstone bedrock. There are five of them, each six inches high, eighteen wide and a foot deep, the result of many patient hours of carving. They lead to the entrance of a smaller cave. The opening is less than body length long and two feet high. The inside is slightly larger and is shaped like the interior of an egg. The paintings are in red—like most of the others at this site—and crude, but they lend an insistence to this spot. From this perspective, you can see the main part of the cave where a tongue of bedrock, about four feet off the ground, seems to reach out toward the sky. Tucked under it is my favorite painting, its image no longer red ochre but just a rust-colored stain on the coarse sandstone. It is a small circle, six inches in diameter, with what appear to be tiny arms and legs emanating from it, an earth creature whose purpose has been lost in the centuries. A creature of the Twentieth Century, it looks like a “Rasta Man” to me.
Inside the smaller cave there are several circles, a series of XXX’s, a long straight line with V-shaped lines radiating out from it. In the right corner is what might be a lizard design or a waterbug, but the upper part of it is worn away. There are also faint charcoal markings inside the cave.
Chumash paintings such as these belong to one of several distinct style periods which evolved over the past three thousand years. The earliest were primarily charcoal scratchings consisting of narrow lines drawn in black. The second style is the one most commonly found in the Santa Ynez Mountains: red on sandstone. Though simple, the paintings of this period include figures with recognizable heads, bodies and limbs—lizards, snakes, scorpions, centipedes—as well as designs like the ones at this site. The third style, found more often in the interior mountains, is called polychrome, meaning “many colors”. This includes any painting with two or more colors, though the traditional ones used were red and black, and to a lesser extent, white. The polychromes sometimes also utilized a dotted style, with a series of white dots surrounding figures, or dots applied to earlier paintings to make them more elaborate.
Just as the Chumash took food from the earth, they also took the colors for their paints. The favorite color was red, produced from hematite, which ranged in color from dull red to bright vermilion. When found, this mineral is brownish-red, but when exposed to flames, it turns a brighter red. Black was made of manganese oxide, while the white came from finely ground diatomaceous earth, a substance that is composed of the fossils of microscopic algae found in large quantities near Lompoc. Oranges and yellow ochre came from another iron oxide. The less commonly used blue and green paints probably were derived from serpentine deposits in the San Rafael Mountains. The paints were also traded among tribes; in fact, the finest of the blacks was made by a southern San Joaquin tribe, the Yokuts. When the wind blows, the meaning of this rock art can almost be heard being whispered to you, but as always, just as the breath begins to take on shape and texture, the meaning slips by.
The spirit of these caves drifts on, across the face of the mountains, driven by the wind. It is the spirit of the shamans, the ancient ones, who decorated these rocks with the basic elements. It is the memory of the Chumash, people who walked softly through the Santa Ynez Mountains, and the message of their lives drifts with it.
The World of the Chumash
Life, to the Chumash, was both mysterious and powerful. Their world offered them an environment more abundant than any other in California, but nevertheless, it set limits. It was a vast land they inhabited—wild, mountainous, and rugged, and topographically oriented in an east-west direction so that the main ranges seemed to align themselves with the movement of the sun and moon.
The Chumash called themselves the First People, and most of their villages were situated near the sea where the climate was mild and the food resources plentiful. Over a period of several thousand years, a tribe of people perhaps more prosperous, more artistically inclined, and more highly advanced that any other in California developed on the Santa Barbara coast.
Properly speaking, “Chumash” meant bead maker, which the Indians who lived on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands were. Subsequently, though, the name has come to refer to all Indians who lived along the coast from Malibu to San Luis Obispo, some 15,000 at the peak of Chumash culture when the Spaniards arrived in the 1770s.
Migratory bands of Indians may have settled in the Santa Barbara area as early as 10,000 years ago, as a warmer, drier climate superseded the Pleistocene ice ages, but it is more likely they arrived closer to 6000 B.C. Before this, most Indian settlements were centered near the lakes and marshes of the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys and at the edges of the Mojave desert.
As the climate continued to dry, and the wetlands began to retreat, these tribes ranged to the far mountains in search of game, pronghorn antelope, tule elk, and deer. In the Cuyama Valley and the Carrizo Plain, much lusher then than today, there was an abundance of these animals, and progressively the Indians moved west toward the coast.
No historian will be able to record the exact moment the first humans walked onto Santa Barbara soil, but it is known that there were people living here no later than 4000 B.C. These were small bands of people, probably family units, as food-gathering techniques were crude and inefficient and there was a lack of proper storage facilities. These tribes moved often, following shifting seasonal food patterns. North of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the people focused on gathering food from the valley grasslands, the chaparral, and the marshlands, while the Indians on the coastal strip increasingly utilized the marine resources and developed techniques to harvest the plentiful food supplies there.
By 1500 B.C., the culture that was to become the Chumash nation began to develop in complexity. Villages appeared on the coast as resources allowed the Indians to become more sedentary, marriage exchanges began to occur, and the size of the villages increased—all due mainly to the ability to utilize the ocean more efficiently. The first permanent settlements in the Santa Ynez Valley were also established at this time.
About 1200 B.C.—coinciding with a climatic shift that created a moist, warm environment for several hundred years—the resource base expanded even further and trade relationships developed between the growing number of villages. As the exchange networks grew, shell beads became the standard of value, linking villages on the Channel Islands to coastal villages and in turn to villages in the Santa Ynez Valley and San Joaquin Valley. Of great significance was the development of the tomol, the planked canoe which made the Chumash masters of the Channel.
Prior to this time the mountains of the Santa Barbara backcountry and the interior valleys were used mainly for the collection of seasonal foods—acorns, islay (holly-leaf cherry), or pinyon nuts. The first villages may actually have been seasonal camps for the coastal Chumash. But with the development of basketry, stone cookware, and most important of all, the ability to harvest and store food surpluses in the fall for winter use, permanent villages appeared along the Santa Ynez River and lush streams situated near the base of Figueroa Mountain. As the inland villages prospered, primitive trails over the Santa Ynez and San Rafael Mountains were built.
By 1100 A.D., Chumash culture was relatively complex. There was craft specialization, status differentiation, and villages were run by chieftains known as wots. There were also sweat lodges, dance floors, and ceremonial enclosures, and a powerful organization of shaman-priests known as the ‘antap.
The Spirit World
As hunter-gatherers, the Chumash recognized their dependency on the world around them. Ceremonies marked significant times of the year. Fall harvest, for example, when food gathering and storage was at its peak, not only celebrated the abundance of the harvest, but was a period of food sharing and food giving. Winter solstice occasioned several days of feasting and dancing, during which the shamans honored the power of their father, the sun, as he started his journey back toward spring.
Over the span of many generations, the Chumash integrated these ceremonies into a distinctive mythology and developed a very direct and meaningful relationship with the earth. Most of what we know today of this relationship is the work of ethnographer John Peabody Harrington, who interviewed many Chumash descendents in the early 1900s, including Fernando Librado (known also by his Chumash name, Kitsepawit) and Maria Solares.
The sky above was Mishupashup. There Morning Star, Moon, and Coyote lived. Moon was a quiet lady who lived by herself, while Sky Coyote was a large creature who watched over human affairs. The world itself was held aloft by an immense eagle, Slo’w, who also watched, but was deep in thought and rarely moved other than to stretch his great wings. Morning Star lived in the home of Sun.
Sun, himself, was old and naked. Each day he crossed the sky, carrying a torch to light his way. The torch was made from the bark of a cottonwood-like tree that grew in the heavens. Sun was the fiery giver of life, but it was also well within his power to take it away.
Every night Sky Coyote and Sun acted out the gamble of life in a game known as Peon. At the winter solstice, the scores were added. If Sun were the winner, there would be little rain in the following year. If Sky Coyote, who usually had man’s best interests in mind, won, Sun had to give Sky Coyote many harvest products to shower down upon the Middle World. ‘Itiashup, the Middle World, was like a flat, round island held up by the strength of two giant serpents, and this is where the Chumash lived. The guardian spirit of this world was Hutash, the mother earth. Of her, Kitsepawit said, “...Earth was the Indian’s mother and god, for she gave them their food, and gave the bear, deer and even the snakes and ants their food.”
There was also another world, C’oyinashup, the lower world beneath the earth. At night, it was said, fearful creatures called Nunashush would come from the ground. The worst of these sort of creatures was Haphap, a man-like monster whose home was at the foot of a steep peak.
The shaman served as mediator between the realities of daily life and this mystical world. It was a world of power, one in which danger often lurked, a world of chance in which the final outcome was to be determined by his ability to harness this power, which he may have attempted to do through the rock paintings.
One of the wonderful things about much of this land, like the Chumash who once lived upon it, is that there is a certain mystery that will always remain to it. There will always be some things about it that we will never know. Like a giant cloak, the chaparral hides much from us, including a great portion of the Chumash rock art, which is secreted in little niches in the high country, powerful visual images blurred just enough to defy interpretation.