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Local History Lesson: 08/15/2019

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

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

Parts III and IV 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.


Native people in aboriginal California ate a diversity of plant and animal foods. While hunting was always an important undertaking, plant foods were among the most important and stable of local foodstuffs. Beginning about 10,000 years ago, at the beginning of the Archaic Period, native peoples relied heavily on hard grass seed for their sustenance. In the local archaeological sites of this era, we find stone mutates, a flat or slightly hollowed oblong stone on which materials such as grain and cocoa are ground into flour using a smaller stone, or manos. Some of the local bedrock mortars, especially those characterized by conical walls and bottoms, were probably also used to process the seed.

Around 5,000 years ago, the native peoples of central California developed a method for leaching the tannic acid from acorns. Prior to that time, acorns had played little role in local diets. However, after the acorn technology was developed, the use of acorns increased dramatically. Just as dramatic was the exponential growth that acorn-consumption brought to the local California Indian population. Whereas previously a family of four relying on grass seed as a food staple had required hundreds of acres to sustain their dietary needs, the same family only needed two or three good oak trees to sustain their needs once they turned to eating acorns. And because of global and regional environmental changes that were underway between 5,000 and 4,000 years ago, oak trees in central California had become increasingly more abundant than before. In the local archaeological sites of this era, we see numerous stone mortars and pestles that were used to grind the acorns into flour. Most of the local bedrock mortars, especially those characterized by rounded walls and bottoms, were also used to process the acorns.

Acorns are quite nutritious, and this proved to be a great benefit to native peoples. Another benefit was found in the fact that the acorns were capable of being stored for a couple of years. This allowed families and villages to create food stores, when excess crops could be set aside for lean times and for use in special feast ceremonies. At these feasts or “Bigtime” events, a host village was obligated to feed all their guests. The Bigtimes were eagerly anticipated during the year, and they were welcomed occasions for trade, marriage, ceremonial performance, and various other forms of economic and social exchange.

The newly-acquired acorn diet meant that there was now more food available for even more people. Populations expanded accordingly, including here on Sonoma Creek. The growth was exponential, and it meant that there were soon more people, more villages, more trade, and more need for an economic organization to keep it all working and to sustain continued growth.


With the advent of the acorn technology in Native American life and the resource banking that it would eventually facilitate, the concept of money appeared in our area. Olivella shell beads were likely used as money in earlier times, although this is not certain. What we do know, however, is that disc-shaped beads made from the shell of the local Washington clam (Saxidomus nuttalli), began to be used as money starting about 500 years ago, near the end of the Emergent or Late Period (A.D. 500 - 1850). It was the Coast Miwok and the Pomo who developed the clamshell currency.

Obviously, the creation of money offered native peoples new and diverse economic possibilities, the combination of which led to a heightened sense of globalization. The concept of money and the creation of resource stores inspired economic strategies that allowed native peoples to eliminate most (albeit, certainly not all) of the perceived causes of armed conflict. As a result, life in California became exceedingly stable and rich. With serious tribal conflicts becoming increasingly rare, tribal support for martial training undoubtedly waned, and the earlier military alliances that had characterized California during the Archaic Period ceased to be maintained. In time, much of what constituted military preparedness and training was forgotten. As was true elsewhere in central California, life on Sonoma Creek was lived in the civilized pursuit of happiness. But the sense of tranquility that globalization brought with it was about to be shattered.

In 1579, Sir Francis Drake landed somewhere on the nearby coast. His landfall was to usher in almost 500 years of Euro-American conquest. Behind Drake came the Spaniards with their missions, the Russians with their thirst for furs, and the Americans with their thirst for gold and land. The foreigners brought glass beads for use in trading. The new beads were sought out by native peoples in the early years of the conquest. They ascribed great value to the foreigners' colorful beads, integrating them into their traditional monetary system. To obtain these beads, and various other favors, some native peoples unwittingly gave up their basic land rights and numerous other inalienable privileges that had been enjoyed by their ancestors over the many millennia. The new beads flooded in and quickly overwhelmed the market. In due course, the beads were deemed worthless, but by then the native monetary system had been severely weakened.

Following the flood of beads there came a flood of foreigners; California was soon overrun. Native peoples resisted the best they could, but they were no match to horse-borne warriors, sharp steel, gunpowder, and European diseases. Culture contact took a terrible toll on native peoples, and with it came a deafening cultural crash! The sense of globalization that had once brought stability and prosperity to native peoples now brought conflict, collapse, and despair.

Of course, native peoples held on, even as their population was drastically reduced. Living in smaller and smaller communities, and becoming much more separated than before, most of the tribes survived the conquest to one degree or another. Today, many of these same communities are growing increasingly stronger, fueled in part by a resurgence of population and a deeply-felt cultural pride. In this awakening, baskets are being made in greater and greater numbers, native languages are being taught, the acorn is again playing a prominent role at traditional Bigtime gatherings, and even obsidian, now not nearly as precious as it once was, is occasionally chipped at various cultural demonstrations. And yet these same native peoples must necessarily exist in the now-dominant American world as well as the world of their traditional past. It is oftentimes an awe-inspiring and perhaps confusing dance they must perform with a foot in each of two very different worlds. To the anthropologist, it is perceived to be a time-honored cultural adaptation. To the rest of us, it is a lesson worth learning.

Perhaps Native California's lesson to the rest of the world is that the human spirit is strong, and people endure, regardless of the adversity or challenge that confronts them. Humans, like other forms of life, tend to adapt when the only other option is to disappear. Or, to paraphrase Plato, “necessity is the mother of invention.” As we struggle with our own socio-political and economic challenges, the modern-day inhabitants of Sonoma Creek should take comfort in the lesson of Native California. We will adapt and we will endure in our collective efforts to define our own economic strategies for embracing the increasingly-smaller world we live in and the precious creek we call home, during this time of renewed globalization.

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