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Local History Lesson: 06/15/2019

Wealth, productivity, growth, and globalization: Stone Age economics on Sonoma Creek

By E. Breck Parkman, former senior California State Parks archaeologist, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park

Part I of IV

When archaeologists address the public, they often will make the mistake of presenting an anthro-centric [human focused] perspective of what is essentially their linear view of life history. The truth, of course, is that other life preceded human life, shared our time here, and will undoubtedly outlast us. Furthermore, history is not so much linear as it is cyclical. Indeed, the architecture of life and history is often more about curves than angles. Regardless of these self-acknowledged realities, though, what follows will address the history of those human beings who once lived along an angular line on the map that we know today as Sonoma Creek. That said, the many nations of geese and salmon, the tribes of elk and wolf, and the clans of bear and eagle that once lived here, are not easily forgotten, nor is the Earth’s unending circle of time.


Three distinct cultural groups occupied the Sonoma Creek drainage in late prehistoric times. The area of the creek’s headwaters was controlled by the Wappo, the ancient Yukian-speaking tribe that inhabited most of Napa Valley beginning at least 8,000 years ago. The mid-waters of the creek constituted the territory of the Hokan-speaking Southern Pomo, who probably arrived here about 4,000 years ago. The lower waters represented the territory of the Penutian-speaking Coast Miwok, who probably came to the area just after the Pomo. Although linguistically separate, these three tribes were similar in many aspects of their Native cultures, in part due to the several millennia that they lived beside one another on Sonoma Creek.

While some private ownership was practiced by all three of the tribes, most natural resources were communal property shared by all the members of the tribe. And while certain individuals or families might improve their social standing through their learned craft, it was typically the community that acquired wealth based on access to desired natural resources. Obsidian is a good example of what I am talking about.

Obsidian, the natural volcanic glass that is common in our area, was once a prized commodity. It was used to manufacture all kinds of cutting tools, knives, projectile points, scrapers, and drills. There are several obsidian sources in the North Coast Ranges, the largest of which are known as Napa Valley, Annadel, Borax Lake, and Konocti. Along Sonoma Creek, we typically see obsidian from either the Napa Valley and/or Annadel sources. The obsidian that we see in our watershed has been quarried at one of the distant sources and brought to the area for the manufacture of stone tools. Much of what we see littering the surface of local archaeological sites is the debris that was left over from countless episodes of chipped-stone tool manufacture.

The Napa Valley obsidian source is located along the Silverado Trail near St. Helena in the Napa Valley. This source was controlled by the Wappo, and its proximity made the tribe very wealthy in aboriginal terms. Napa Valley obsidian was quarried for at least 12,000 years, beginning in the Paleoindian Period (c. 11,000- 8,000 B.C.E.), and it was later traded widely throughout central California.

The Annadel obsidian source is located within Trione-Annadel State Park near Oakmont. This source was controlled by the Southern Pomo, and its presence made them wealthy, just as the Napa Valley source did for the Wappo. Annadel obsidian was quarried for at least 8,000 years and it was traded almost as widely as the obsidian from the Napa Valley.

The Coast Miwok lacked a suitable obsidian source in their territory, and thus they had to trade for this valuable tool material. Fortunately for them, they had lots of natural resources to offer up in trade. Because their territory fronted San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, the Coast Miwok had easy access to a cornucopia of desirable marine products such as seaweed, fish, waterfowl, abalone, and clamshells (for making beads). These resources made the Coast Miwok just as wealthy as their obsidian-rich neighbors. Through regular trade, the Coast Miwok, Southern Pomo, and Wappo maintained relatively friendly relations during the years they were neighbors on Sonoma Creek. They used their wealth to ensure comfortable and stable lives for themselves, in part by mitigating against the adversity of competition. Indeed, this was a defining trait of their wealth.

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