Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Santa Lucia Mountains yields an arborglyph with astronomical graphics

The image almost doubled and I frankly cannot see the claimed astronomical events.

This is a significant historical and scientific discovery but one must exercise caution when describing such depictions with 21st Century terminology. To label such an artifact as "ancient astronomy" is ambiguous and somewhat misleading in that it does not necessarily mean that a cadre of Native Americans specialized in the study of astronomy as we do now but more in a crude mythology. It could well mean nothing more that what was observed as independent events supplementing their beliefs. It reminds me of the Antikythera mechanism that many have called an "ancient computer". This all boils down to definition.

"A Tree Carving in California: Ancient Astronomers?"


Matt Kettmann

February 9th, 2010


Though local lore held that the so-called "scorpion tree" had been the work of cowboys, paleontologist Rex Saint Onge immediately knew that the tree was carved by Indians when he stumbled upon it in the fall of 2006. Located in a shady grove atop the Santa Lucia Mountains in San Luis Obispo County, the centuries-old gnarled oak had the image of a six-legged, lizard-like being meticulously scrawled into its trunk, the nearly three-foot-tall beast topped with a rectangular crown and two large spheres. "I was really the first one to come across it who understood that it was a Chumash motif," says Saint Onge, referring to the native people who painted similar designs on rock formations from San Luis Obispo south through Santa Barbara and into Malibu.

Amazingly, Saint Onge had just identified the West Coast's only known Native American arborglyph, one long hidden behind private property signs. But the discoveries didn't stop there. After spending more time at the site, Saint Onge realized that the carved crown and its relation to one of the spheres was strikingly similar to the way the constellation Ursa Major - which includes the Big Dipper - related to the position of Polaris, the North Star. "But as a paleontologist, I live my life looking down at the ground," says Saint Onge, who runs an archaeological-consulting firm out of nearby Arroyo Grande. "I didn't know much about astronomy at all."

He quickly learned that the constellation rotates around the North Star every 24 hours, that its placement during sunset could be used to tell the seasons and that the Chumash people also revered this astronomical relationship in their language and cosmology. "It's the third largest constellation in the sky and they saw it every single night for tens of thousands of years," says Saint Onge. "It was like the TV being stuck on the same channel playing the same show nonstop." It became increasingly obvious to Saint Onge that the arborglyph and related cave paintings weren't just the work of wild-eyed, drug-induced shamans - which has been a leading theory for decades - but that the ancient images were deliberate studies of the stars and served as integral components of the Chumash people's annual calendar. "This gives us an insight into what the indigenous people of Central California were doing," says Saint Onge, who published his theory last fall in the Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology. "It wasn't just the daily simpleton tasks of hunter-gatherers. They were actually monitoring the stars."

Saint Onge isn't the first to speculate that Chumash paintings might have astronomical implications. The anthropologist Travis Hudson did so back in the 1970s with his book Crystals in the Sky, which combined his observations of rock art with the cultural data recorded nearly a century earlier by legendary ethnographer John P. Harrington. But when others went into the field to check out Hudson's claims, "much of it was pretty unconvincing," explains anthropologist John Johnson of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. "That's what caused people to get skeptical about archaeoastronomical connections."

That reluctance ruled for three decades until Saint Onge presented his findings to Johnson, a bookish researcher who isn't one to rock the academic boat with unsubstantiated suggestions. But Johnson was so impressed that he co-authored the journal article and is now quite open to the idea that the rock art he's studied his whole adult life might have something to say about the stars. "Whether we're right or not, I don't know, but we keep finding things that strengthen the idea," says Johnson. "And if we keep finding ethnographic support for it, I feel we're on safer ground."

Neither man knows how long ago the tree was carved - though they speculate that a Chumash family that lived on a nearby hillside until they all died in the 1918 flu epidemic may have tended to the arborglyph as the bark and lichen grew back - but they're just relieved that Saint Onge was able to find it at all. "The upkeep of the motif itself has gone by the wayside and it's not long for the world," says Saint Onge, explaining that carpenter ants are attacking the limbs, "so I think it was a good thing that we came across it when we did."

Johnson and Saint Onge are most satisfied that the arborglyph is confirming what they've long known: that, despite centuries of being classified by historians as merely hunter-gatherers, the Chumash lived in a very complex and sophisticated society. Those sentiments are echoed loudly by Joe Talaugon, a 79-year-old Chumash elder who visited the site early on with Saint Onge and is also a co-author of the study. Although he says that the Chumash people's traditions were "stripped" by the Spanish mission system that ruled California 200 years ago, Talaugon believes that the arborglyph and its implications empower the ongoing cultural renaissance among those of Chumash descent. In recent years, Chumash revivalists have built and paddled plank canoes into the sea, developed a linguistic textbook and learned to perform the music and dancing of yesteryear.

"Chumash people are realizing that they do have a connection to their ancestors, so they want to renew that," says Talaugon, a retired construction worker who founded the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in northern Santa Barbara County to rejuvenate the Chumash culture and spiritual beliefs. "It's important to me as an elder that we tell the truth about our history," says Talaugon. "The tree carving opened up a lot of avenues to do so."

"Native truth"

Discovery of an ancient Chumash artifact sheds light on the tribe's complex history


Amy Asman

March 12th, 2008


On a brisk October morning in 2007, local paleontologist Rex Saint Onge traveled up into the wooded hills of the Santa Lucia mountain range in San Luis Obispo County.

That day he was going to do a paleo survey of the land, looking for fossils and other markings made by olden-day rancheros. What he found, however, was much more significant.

The discovery began when one of the men Saint Onge was working with asked if he wanted to see the "Scorpion Tree." Intrigued by the offer, Saint Onge followed the man to a secluded area dotted with oak trees.

The land, the man said, had once been inhabited by a Chumash family that perished during an influenza outbreak in 1918. The family's home, along with the infected bodies, was later burned to the ground to prevent the disease from spreading.

The only remnants of the family's existence were a few artifacts sprinkled near a large oak tree growing on the property: The Scorpion Tree.

After looking at the tree, Saint Onge learned why it got its name. Deeply carved into its smooth bark was an exotic motif resembling what appeared to be some kind of insect or reptilian creature.

Upon further inspection, Saint Onge was amazed by what he saw.

"I realized immediately that it was Native American and not a cowboy sign," said Saint Onge, who received most of his training at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. "After that, I immediately documented the site."

In his report, Saint Onge called the three-foot-long motif an arborglyph, which translates to "tree carving."

"It seemed to be the correct way to describe what I was seeing," he wrote in his report. "I had no idea, at the time, that it may have been the first time in Central Northwestern America one had been visually recognized."

Later analysis of the artifacts collected from the Chumash home revealed that all of the objects had been made circa 1845, and most likely disposed of around 1910. The analysis bolstered what Saint Onge had heard about the Chumash family living in the area. But the arborglyph was a whole different story.

Saint Onge recognized the basic design of the arborglyph from similar motifs he had seen at other sacred Chumash sites in California, such as Painted Rock and Painted Cave.

Over the years, archaeologists haven't established the repeated motif as an important Chumash religious symbol. The complex design depicts a multi-legged being wearing an ornate headdress. In most motifs, the headdress connects to a large, wheel-like figure, which is accompanied by a prominent star-like shape.

According to Chumash history, only shamans can draw these motifs--a fact that raises questions about the origin of the arborglyph.

The tree with the arborglyph, Saint Onge said, is at least 200 years old. So while it's possible that members of the Chumash family carved over the motif and therefore made it deeper, they were not the original artists.

In order to better understand the origin of the arborglyph and the meaning behind it, Saint Onge contacted several Chumash tribal members including Guadalupe resident and Chumash tribal member Joe Talaugon, whom he had met a year earlier.

A long-time civil rights activist, Talaugon founded the Guadalupe Cultural Arts and Education Center with his wife, Margie, five years ago as a way to bring more cultural awareness to the Central Coast. The Talaugons and their daughter, Karen Evangelista, showcase dozens of artifacts and art collections at the center.

Joe said they wanted to establish a center that would celebrate the area's cultural diversity, and educate current residents and tourists about its rich history. While much is known about the Central Coast's Spanish and Mexican history, very little is known about the land's original inhabitants.

The Chumash were the first people to live along the California coast, and survived for thousands of years before Europeans settled in the area. At one point, Chumash villages could be found all the way from Malibu to Paso Robles. Chumash villages such as Atajes, Lospe, Nipomu, and Ajuapas coexisted for hundreds of years in the area that today is Guadalupe.

A lack of public knowledge of the Chumash history deeply troubles Joe, as it does many other Chumash tribal members and people like Saint Onge.

"It's a challenge for all of us," Joe said. "We constantly have to fight against the establishment, what is already written and generally accepted about the Chumash people."

Doubts about the intelligence level of the ancient Chumash people and the ethnic roots of present-day Chumash people, said Talaugon and Saint Onge, have caused much of the facts about the tribe to become distorted.

"About 99 percent of the people I've met and talked to think the Chumash are dead," Saint Onge said.

Talaugon agreed, adding that many people even doubt that he and his fellow tribal members are actual Chumash descendants. He attributes this belief to his people's turbulent history.

After the Spanish came to California and began building Catholic missions, he said, many of the Chumash began to adopt Mexican names as a way of protecting their identities.

"If you research the Chumash [and their involvement with the Spanish], there is a clear history of abuse and forceful conversion into the Catholic Church," Talaugon said.

The abuse and forced conversion caused much of the Chumash culture and history, which was passed down orally from generation to generation, to be lost. European influence has also had an effect on how the Chumash and many other indigenous peoples are perceived in history.

"For hundreds of years, the Chumash have really taken a hit when it comes to their presumed level of intelligence or level of complexity," Saint Onge said.

So when Saint Onge presented Talaugon with the arborglyph--an artifact that could possibly prove the Chumash were a highly intelligent people--he jumped at the opportunity to become involved.

"I've always believed our people were intelligent," Talaugon said. "For a people to survive over 10,000 years, they really had to have some kind of scientific knowledge."

Their proof, Talaugon and Saint Onge said, was carved into a tree growing just miles away.

Saint Onge continued to study the components of the arborglyph and compare them with the similar motifs found at Painted Rock and Painted Cave. Eventually, he realized that the suspected headdress worn by the being was actually a rendering of the constellation Ursa Major, better known as the Big Dipper. The star-like shape connected to the headdress was actually the North Star.

For thousands of years, the Chumash have called Ursa Major ilihiy, which means "the Guardian," and called the North Star minimol, which means "Sky Coyote" or "Great Creator."

According to Chumash beliefs, the Guardian is said to keep watch over Sky Coyote by circling the star every 24 hours, similar to the way the Earth's rotation makes Ursa Major appear to circle the North Star in the same amount of time.

On top of the repeated motif, the sacred Chumash paintings found on Painted Rock and in Painted Cave also depict drawings of two human figures. In the drawings, a larger figure is showing a similar copy of the motif to a smaller figure. The smaller figure is posed with his hands on his hips and gazing skyward.

Saint Onge postulated that Chumash shamans would use the motif to teach younger generations about Sky Coyote (the Great Creator) and astronomy--a theory potentially authenticated by interviews conducted in the early 1900s between world-famous anthropologist John P. Harrington and Fernando Librado, who may have been one of the last Chumash shamans, before Librado's death in 1915.

Just the fact that ancient Chumash society was able to support astrological and religious experts like the shamans, Saint Onge said, proves its high level of intelligence and complexity.

"In order to become an expert in something, you need people who can feed and clothe and shelter you. You need the time to become an expert. You don't have time to go out hunting for food every night," Saint Onge said. "You have to have a complex society to support experts."

Along with teaching, shamans monitored the stars, migratory animals, and plants. Their knowledge was used to advance technology and understanding in their communities.

But, Saint Onge said, the shamans monitored the stars for another reason as well.

After using the U.S. Geological Survey to map the locations of the arborglyph, Painted Cave, Painted Rock, and Morro Rock--another sacred Chumash site--Saint Onge found that all of the sites and their corresponding motif artifacts pointed True North (the direction of the geographical North Pole from a given point).

According to Saint Onge, the Chumash used the motif of Ursa Major and the North Star to determine such sacred places. During the winter and summer solstices, Chumash shamans would journey to these places, using the motif as a navigation tool, and then hold religious ceremonies and paint their motifs.

Saint Onge said that he believes the shamanistic motifs are used to mark axis mundi, which means "the center of all things." The axis is marked by a sacred tree or cosmic mountain that serves as a gateway into the "sky world," or in European terms, Heaven.

"The fact that these major sites are all aligned True North is just astounding," he said.

The use of the symbol, he said, proves that the Chumash were a highly developed people who "lived under a single religion and a single Great Creator."

The discovery is something Saint Onge also said he feels privileged to be a part of.

As a descendant of the Algonquin people, a Native American tribe from the New England area, Saint Onge said that he's pleased his discoveries can bring some long-deserved accreditation to the Chumash people.

Talaugon agreed: "It has been my life ambition to be a part of something like this."

"Our goal is to tell the truth. Not to become ridiculous or radical," he said. "I believe through education we can get a lot of the information out there about what really happened to the Chumash and who they were as a people."

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