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Local History Lesson: 08/01/2019

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

By E. Breck Parkman, former Senior State Parks Archaeologist, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park

Part II of IV

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.


Museum curators and collectors around the world agree that the finest baskets ever made anywhere in the world were made right here in the northern San Francisco Bay area. They are often counted among the prized possessions of museums everywhere. While it is not clear just when basketry began as a craft in Native California, it was already wide-spread 4,000 years ago, during the midst of the Archaic Period.

Baskets were created for all kinds of purposes. There were storage baskets and carrying baskets, winnowing baskets and hopper baskets. Some baskets were made as special gifts, and these gift baskets were sometimes covered with colorful bird feathers and shell beads, and sometimes they were created in miniature. Many Native women wore baskets as hats. The basket hats bore intricate geometric designs, which sometimes had deeper meaning.

Certain of the baskets and regalia were more than inanimate things. This is especially true of the gift baskets. Today, I know more than a few Californian Indians who routinely take their old family baskets - those that have been inherited from earlier generations - out of storage in order to feed and talk to them. These baskets are living things with a spirit all their own.

California Indian baskets were so well made that some even held water. Water-tight baskets were used for cooking. In a nearby fire, a Native cook would heat rocks. Once the rocks were hot, they would be transported to the water-filled basket using wooden tongs. As the rocks cooled in the liquid, they would be removed, and new heated rocks would be substituted for them. In time, the transfer of heat from the rocks to the liquid would boil the water in the basket, thus cooking whatever food item was placed in it. After the rocks had been heated and cooled several times, they would begin to crack and break apart. At that point, they were discarded, and new rocks were collected from nearby creek beds. Over time, numerous fire-affected rocks were deposited in Native occupation sites. Today, these burned rocks represent one of the classes of remains that archaeologists most often encounter when excavating local cultural deposits.

Obviously, the creation of basketry allowed Native cultures to become increasingly productive. Large amounts of natural resources, such as seaweed, acorns, and obsidian, could be transported great distances with relative ease. Once back at the village, Native peoples could easily store their supplies in large basketry containers. The ability to transport and store essential supplies created economic opportunities that eventually led to the creation of a resource banking system. The productivity of basketry thus resulted in Native societies that were themselves increasingly productive in a purely economic sense. What was equally important, though, was that these people were able to spend more time elaborating on their intellectual and art traditions, perhaps a defining trait of great civilizations, thanks in large part to their increased economic productivity.

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