Did the Polynesians beat Cabrillo to California? Part 2

In my last post I gave you some background information on the theory that Polynesians voyaged to the new world. Today I will discuss the title question. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was a Spanish explorer who was credited as being the first outsider to California. In 1756 he sailed into San Diego harbor, thus ensuring his place in history. He continued up the coast to the Santa Barbara Channel and the Channel Islands. This area was the home of the Chumash people, the subject of this whole two-parter.

The Chumash wereone of the greatest and most sophisticated of California’s tribes. The spanned the Central Coast from Morro Bay in the north to the southern reaches of Ventura County. They had a class system based on wealth. They had a crude economy that used shell beads as currency. They lived in sedentary villages where they harvested acorns, wild seeds, bulbs, cherries, and hunted game on the land while harvesting shellfish, fishing, and hunting marine mammals in the sea. They had a complex cosmology with many myths and vibrant art. Each person had their own specialized craft. They set up extensive trade routes throughout the Central Coast. They played a wide variety of games; they particularly loved gambling games, with the stakes being shell bead money, prized possessions, or even the resolution of political issues; they also had a game called shinny, which resembled modern field hockey (at large ceremonial gatherings, there could be as many as 300 players on the field). Chiefs gained their rank through ancestry and usually had an assistant chief (who could sometimes be a woman), and many tribes came together to form chiefdoms. The Chumash were undoubtedly a fascinating and complex culture.

Though what is often considered their greatest achievement is the tomol, also known as a plank canoe. While most Chumash tribes used canoes for fishing, the plank canoe was particularly common along the Santa Barbara coast, where it was used for trade with the tribes living on the Channel Islands. Accounts from Cabrillo’s voyage talk of how the Chumash paddled out in their canoes to greet the new comers. The tomol could be between 12 and 30 feet long and could take anywhere between 40 days and 6 months to build. The canoe was built from memory and was a laborious undertaking. First wood had to be gathered. Redwood was valued in particular (because it swells when wet) but since it does not grow on the Central Coast they would use pieces that washed up from the north. Once enough wood was collected the pieces would be split into planks ¾ of an inch thick using stone or whale bone chisels. Then the planks would be smoothed with shark skin sandpaper. Pine pitch and tar (two awesome facts about tar: 1. The Chumash word for tar is “Pismu”, which would give Pismo Beach its name; 2. Carpentaria in the early 20th century was the first asphalt mine in the world) were collected and ground, boiled, and then applied to the boards to hold them in place. Then holes would be drilled into each end of the plank where they would be tied together with milkweed fiber. Finally seams were sealed with tule reed and caulked with tar. Canoes were often painted with natural pigments. There was a special group of men called the Brotherhood of the Canoe who specialized in building and operating tomols and wore bearskin robes as a sign of their status. The tomol has almost become a symbol of the Chumash. It is mentioned and portrayed wherever you find the Chumash mentioned and portrayed:

Modern reconstruction of a Chumash tomol or plank canoe at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Model of a tomol at the Carpentaria Valley Museum of History

Part of a mural on the side of a building in Lompoc depicting Chumash men paddling a tomol. Mural by Robert Thomas

But to some, this canoe represents a critical piece of evidence in who discovered the new world before Columbus. A couple of experts, Terry Jones and Kathryn Klar, have noticed similarities between Chumash and Polynesian names for the tomol. Tomol is just short hand; the full name is tomolo’o, which Jones and Klar argue is very close to the Polynesian word tumuraa’au. It has further been argued by Jones that the tomolo’o is very similar to plank sewn canoes used in Polynesia. Another expert, Yoshihiko Sinoto sees similarities between Chumash fish hooks and fish hooks from Tahiti.  And I happen to have a little observation (because we all know I am oh so good at that /sarcasm) that may represent another possible link. In 2009 my dad and I took a trip to Painted Rock out in Carrizo Plain National Monument. Painted Rock is a large horseshoe shaped boulder on the northwestern edge of the valley. Inside lies the rock’s namesake: dozens of Chumash rock paintings. The paintings have suffered much from the elements and human carelessness but many are still clear and fascinating to look at. One in particular caught my eye. It was what appeared to be a horned anthropomorphic figure:

A Chumash pictograph portraying a horned anthropomorphic figure at Paint Rock, Carrizo Plain National Monument

It looked vaguely familiar. I felt like I had seen a similar piece of rock art somewhere before. It was only when I got home and looked through some old pictures that I realized where I had seen it before: Kona, Hawaii.

A petroglyph depicting a horned anthropomorphic figure at a site outside Kona, Hawaii

Similar names for similar technology. Fish hooks that bear uncanny resemblances to each other. And a possible link in ancient art forms. This is all tantalizing evidence that Polynesians visited California in the ancient past. But could it be true? About.com notes that implements for making the canoe (like drills, tar, and splitting wedges) have been found at the 8,000 year old Eel Point site on San Celemente Island (how reliable this source is I don’t know). Maybe further discoveries will shed more light on this enigmatic puzzle. The Chumash and the Polynesians continue to be two of my favorite “primitive” cultures. Finding evidence that they once met would be sweet icing on the cake!

Till next time!

3 thoughts on “Did the Polynesians beat Cabrillo to California? Part 2

  1. I am of polynesian desent (maori NZ) am totally wrapped in your writtings.The maori word for sweetpotato is kumara.That word can be found in some chile tribes as kumar Polyesians not only sailled to NZ but also sailled back to to Haiwai-iki.The people that settled madagasgar are also beleived to be of Mallagasi decent (forunner of the Polynesians

  2. Hi! I just had a tiny correction. Cabrillo was actually a Portuguese sailed, named Joao, not Juan. He sailed for the Spanish, but he was actually Portuguese. Many people assumed he was Spanish because he was employed by the king, but that’s not the case.🙂 Sorry, but I’m a Portuguese historian, and it’s my mission to correct these myths.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s