Photo: Stuart Allen's Lake Berryessa Line

The Putah-Cache Bioregion Project:

Dancin' on Sacred Land

Ten thousand years: encounters with the past

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An Artifact
Ancient Fish

An Artifact

According to Marlene Greenway's research, US Bureau of Land Management archaeologist, humans have been occupying the Putah and Cache basins for nearly ten thousand years. Here, evidence of former inhabitants escapes all but the most persistent investigators. Occasionally, it surfaces by chance.

In April, 1991, three friends and I were riding bicycles up the narrow, winding tarmac from Williams toward Lodoga, in the west side foothills. By this time I had come to realize that there had been an abundant native population in this place, and that not all indigenous people had died in the epidemics of 1833 and 1834. At the time I was typical of many other white Americans, vaguely aware that primal peoples had once lived on "my land", but ignorant of who they were, where they were, and most of all, how they lived here.

I did not recognize the small stone object I picked up by the side of the road while resting against my bicycle. It was made of hard black and white flecked stone - something like granite. It appeared to be man-made, but so uniform in diameter, that, although tapered, it might have been a sample for testing the rock's strength, or a core dug out of a blasting hole, or a balustrade from an ornate stone garden fence. I put the stone in my pocket, and upon arriving home, stowed the object away in a "junk" drawer.

Three years later, I saw with astonishment a detailed illustration of the exact object I had found: a four-thousand year old, "early horizon" steatite charmstone. The function of such stones is still debated, but charmstones were found in native graves dating up until a thousand years ago. This one precisely matched the illustration and material of the earliest horizon of archaeological exploration. It was thought that such charmstones were suspended over spots in the stream, to "charm" the fish into being caught.

The stone I had found had apparently accompanied a load of local gravel to buoy up a new, asphalt river. There was no telling where it might have originated, but probably -- since I was on an old back road in the foothills -- not too far away. I imagined the stone hanging vertically from a branch, and wondered which species of fish it was intended to catch, and which hands had so carefully hewn it out of a larger piece, and what the particular world view of the individual who had made it was, and whether, perhaps, that person had wondered, as I had, where he was, or who had come before him.

For those of us new to the territory, it is difficult to imagine four hundred generations of intimate knowing-how-to-live-here passed down over millennia; fathers and mothers teaching daughters and sons the best means of surviving and thriving in this place; whole communities of humans and non-humans so entwined with the land that any slim boundaries between self and other, sky and earth, water and soil, animal and human, must have been imperceivable. How could the land not have been sacred? What else could explain the persistence of people in place over such a time that whole languages evolved within distinct watersheds draining only a few thousand hectares?

The charmstone sits in a leather pouch upon a small meditation altar in my home office. It symbolizes for me an acknowledgment that we are all "dancin' on sacred land". Over the years, I have made it a hobby to piece together every shred of information possible on these indigenous peoples who lived here long before me -- where they lived, what languages they spoke, what foods they gathered , fish they caught, animals they hunted, gods and spirits they beckoned , dances they danced.

I try not to be sloppy or sentimental about it, realizing that some of these people feuded, warred upon one another, even on occasions very long ago, practiced decapitation and ritual sacrifice. From most accounts, however, at the time of European contact the Patwin and their neighbors were peaceful, grounded people who had managed to achieve some sense of balance with the lands they occupied. They subsisted on acorns, grass seeds, fish, small mammals, roots, tubers, wild berries and fruits, occasionally taking deer or elk. They lived in semi-subterranean houses, built by excavating a shallow, circular pit, placing four upright poles toward the center, spanning the roof from edge to center poles with whole tree trunks, adding thinner branches for structure and covering the roof with earth, or in areas of ample timber, tree bark.


Starting about two thousand years ago, the local peoples' flat stone matates and manos were gradually and nearly entirely replaced by the round, stubby pestle and bedrock mortar, indicating both an increasing permanence of settlement and a growing dependence upon the acorn, an oilier crop than grass which demanded a different grinding mechanism. This "late horizon" or "emergent" period was one of rootedness, wherein the Kuksu cult of spirit impersonation emerged, the language dialects presumably differentiated, and the flowering of the local culture occurred. By the time of European settlement, the Putah-Cache Creek region was representative of what some anthropologists have called the "Central California cultural climax" -- a presumed state of existence where human habitation was in sufficient balance with its surroundings as to achieve a significant population with little apparent detriment to the carrying capacity of the enveloping region, and a culture with a widely shared ritual practice, yet marked by very localized dialects.

What spiritual glue held these cultures together? There were the dances -- Hesi, Bole Maru, Kuksu, where spirits were impersonated, young men and women were initiated into secret societies, calamitous events featuring evil spirits were staged and then dramatically resolved, and in the process, the world was renewed and made whole again. Their mythology centered around Sede-Tsiak (Old Man Coyote), Ketit (Peregrine Falcon), and other animals including condor, grizzly bear, elk, antelope, and rattlesnake. Of the above animals, only rattlesnake and coyote are still abundant in the bioregion; the others are either extinct, extirpated, endangered, or threatened. Several excavations dated to the Late Emergent period have revealed whole tule elk carcasses buried together with human remains, a sign of a reverential position for these animal species.

The river Patwin tribes who lived adjacent to the Sacramento and its seasonal flood waters had access to vast schools of salmon, steelhead, and other anadromous fish. Putah and Cache Creeks, which merged with the Sacramento flood plain marshes only during high water, supported at least enough salmon and sturgeon to provide auxiliary food for native peoples along their lower reaches. Along neither stream were anadromous fish harvests likely to have provided the bulk of native diets, as they did for Patwin groups living along the Sacramento. A favorite way of preparing and preserving salmon among these latter peoples was to dry the meat and pulverize it into a flour-like consistency, which then could be carried, stored, or mixed with other foods. River Patwin dwelling in the Sacramento Valley who had access to the immense supplies of migrating salmon were considered by anthropologists to have developed the apex of the Central California culture (Krober, Heizer refs), and it was in these regions that the Kuksu cult and other spirit impersonations and secret societies took on their most elaborate forms, later to spread outward to other native groups.

For the Sacramento Valley bioregion as a whole, however, including the lands extending up tributary streams both east and west, the major food source by far, and the single most important bioindicator of culture, was the acorn. There is a recognizable geographic congruity between oak distribution, regional boundaries of the Penutian languages, the drainage basins of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, and the territorial extent of the Central California "climax" cultures characterized by semi-subterranean dance lodges, spirit impersonation, and secret societies. These four categorical boundaries do not exactly coincide, of course, but there is sufficient overlap to suggest a general life-place relationship between landform, watershed, dominant foods sources, major linguistic patterns, spiritual, and cultural practices.

While it is well known that by 1830 AD, trade had been an integral part of native Californian life for several thousand years (abalone, or Haliotis shell ornaments, have been found in far-inland grave sites dating to 2,000 BC), the pattern of linguistic divisions and dialects reveal that for the most part, groups of people lived long enough in presumably self-sufficient units to develop small-scaled differences in language dialects. Nowhere else in north America is there evidence of such fine differentiations of language in close relation to physiographic, hydrologic, and biotic zones as there is among California native peoples. This, perhaps more than any other reality, has spurred the imagination of the bioregionalists, who ask whether it might be possible to once again achieve the same fine-grained balance between ways of living on the land and the dimensions of what the land offers to provide for human life.

I reflect upon these peoples with an eye to understanding their response to our region, and hold forth the hope of emulating their lessons in this bioregion once again. What might we learn from these people? To ask only of our surroundings what they might provide us without losing their integrity, or our own. . . to entwine ourselves to the land through ritual . . . to initiate our young men and women into the necessary social structures to sustain life over time in place. . . to deeply know and respect the limits and potentials of our home territories.

Ancient Fish

Peter Moyle, the preeminent professor of fish biology at UC Davis, enters the room smiling. He reports that remains of salmon and steelhead have been unearthed within Patwin graves, discovered during pipeline excavations in the married student housing on campus, near the old course of Putah Creek. According to Peter, the existence of whole carcasses, rather than fish parts, indicates that the fish were caught nearby, not carried to the site for trade. This confirms what we have suspected, that a rich fishery once existed at the outflow of Putah Creek into the vast Sacramento basin marsh area. During high water, salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon once plied the high waters, offering sustenance to the river Patwin groups who lived nearly where we now sit.

Later that day, I am riding my bicycle - more slowly than usual - past the street corner by Voorhies Hall on the university campus, under which still lie the bones of Patwin people who once called this place home. No marker of any kind tells us of their existence, or reveals that over a thousand of them lived by the banks within site of the where I am now stopped. I have, however, developed my own means of assuring their former presence a continuous place in my mind, reciting a crude mantra assembled of Patwin words I have extracted from the scant anthropological and linguistic literature, since no Patwin speakers remain. "Saltu k'e-we Putatoi" - "Spirit Home of the Putah People."

I nod in the direction of the Redwood trees now growing in the campus arboretum 100 yards to the south, along the former creek channel near the site of the recent archaeological excavations. Twenty years ago I was married here. Little did I know then, that two hundred years ago, Patwin caught salmon and sturgeon in the creek floodwaters, and no doubt danced in lodges only a few feet from where I would one day say my wedding vows.

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