The First People in California

Indians cooking

Many centuries before European explorers found California—isolated at the fringes of their familiar world—native Indians had occupied the land.  Authorities differ as to their numbers, estimating from 100,000 to 300,000 individuals before Spain began its colonization in 1769.  (This very wide range indicates a lack of definitive information. Probably the numbers were higher, and it is thought most of the Indian population lived in northern California regions where water and food resources were more abundant.)  Except for the high reaches of the Sierra Nevada, the Indians resided throughout the future state from the seashore to the inlands hills and valleys, in villages the Spanish called Rancherias. At one time there were more than 100 family groups speaking 80 languages. With some exceptions, they didn’t practice agriculture, surviving and prospering as hunter-gatherers. They did not use pottery. The Maidu, who lived east of the Sacramento River in northern California, wove colorful, water proof baskets from a variety of reeds and rushes, and fashioned tall acorn granaries from willow and wild grapevine. Their valley neighbors included the Miwok, the Wintun, the Yana, and the Yokuts.  The Costanoans’ San Francisco Bay area encompassed Mt. Diablo.  Coastal Indian tribes were the Wailaki, the Yuki, the Pomo and the Coast Miwok. However, these labels were conferred by late 19th Century archeologists and were not names the Indians used themselves.


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