Life & Culture

The Bones of a Culture

For generations, broad segments of the public assumed that the indigenous peoples living on the Spanish missions in California had abandoned their traditions. The problem was, it wasn’t true.

“Over the past 20 years or so, archeology and archeology, particularly in California, has begun to refute this one-sided false story of the loss of indigenous or traditional indigenous culture after the period of the Spanish mission,” Sarah Noy said. Graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

In a research paper published in the International Journal of Historical Archeology, Noe adds to the growing body of knowledge that highlights the resilience of Native Californians throughout the mission period, actively maintaining technological, living, and religious practices despite the difficulties of the time.

In her research, Noe examined food waste in the original California living quarters of Mission Santa Clara. She said the remains consisted of highly fragmented bones – a distressing sight given that they generally reveal a bit more about whether they were mammals, birds or fish.

But looking closely, I noticed that the majority of the larger bone fragments were from cattle and were definitely broken on purpose. That was insightful because, she said, marrow extract and lipids are often used as an indicator of nutritional stress and starvation, particularly in archaeological studies of people dependent on agriculture who depend primarily on livestock meat.

Furthermore, extraction of marrow and blubber from prehistoric animals has been well documented in most parts of California.

“For example, in some of my earlier work in Iceland, there was evidence of marrow and fat extracted from cattle bones from settlements of people who were starving and needed every last nutrient from animal carcasses to survive,” Noy said.

However, the extraction of marrow and blubber from prehistoric animals has been well documented in much of California as a step in food preparation—marrow and blubber were consistently extracted from segmented deer and elk bones. Thus, rather than being an indicator of nutritional stress, throughout the mission, Native Californians continued to prepare their meals the traditionally Spanish manner by cracking mammal bones to extract marrow and blubber.

Understanding the persistence of Native Californians in the face of colonization is important, she said, as it counters the narrative of erasure that has been the center of popular history for so long.

“The continuity of California indigenous lifestyles and traditions from the pre-contact period to the colonial expedition period to the modern day has been thoroughly discussed by scholars,” Noy said. However, much of this research and information is not widely understood and accepted by the general public. Educational resources and historical sites still provide the story of acculturation and extinction, although evidence against such statements abounds.

“The necessity for additional scholarship stems from the need to rewrite these perceptions,” she continued, presenting additional research that completely refutes the story of the complete loss of native Californian life during the mission period, and instead highlights the emphatic insistence of many practices that linked the past and the present in a dynamic, uninterrupted path.”

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