Household economies:The role of animals in a Historic period chiefdom on the California coast

Anna Christine Noah
Dept. of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles
July, 2005


Anthropologists once thought that chiefdoms only arose within agriculturally based societies, but it is now clear that simple chiefdoms solely reliant on fishing, hunting, and gathering have occasionally emerged in environmentally rich regions. By definition, animals formed a crucial underpinning of these societies. However, little is known about how these types of societies were integrated in terms of acquiring and distributing animal foods or how animals and their products were employed to establish and maintain social hierarchical relationships. This dissertation contributes to our understanding of these topics by focusing on subsistence specialization, differential access to animal products, and feasting among the relatively undisrupted early Historic period Island Chumash who occupied California's northern Channel Islands. To address several hypotheses related to these topics, I analyze faunal remains and animal procurement tools from 14 contemporaneous elite and commoner houses at four Santa Cruz Island villages. I use a variety of quantitative methods to compare households. One method, contingency table residual analysis, originally developed for classifying lithic artifacts, is applied here for the first time to faunal remains. I find that a continuum ranging from complete household
self-sufficiency in commoner villages to what may have been incipient forms of fishing specialization serving primarily elites existed among the Chumash. Some fishers may have regularly fished deeper waters from tomols and distributed catches among multiple houses. Mass-harvesting of fishes using nets was important only at the largest of the four villages in my sample, the important
trading village of Xaxas. Higher status households had greater access to harpooned fishes, including swordfish, and to dolphins, which
provided essential fats in a protein-dominated diet. All households had similar access to pinniped meat, but higher status households may have received more of the meatier upper body parts. Swordfish was abundant at certain households but was also widely distributed, suggesting that elites used rare or desirable foods to solidify relationships with society's non-elite members. Near the end of island occupation, a major feasting event was held at Xaxas. Apparently attended by a large group of elites, commoners, and possibly mission-influenced Chumash, the event featured massive quantities of abalones, fishes, sea mammals, and other foods. While early Spanish accounts reveal the competitive aspects of feasting, this particular feast seems to have been staged to carry on traditions and promote the benefits of being Chumash during a time when much of the indigenous population was being absorbed into the missions.