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  • Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge among the Chumash People of Southern California
  • Martinez Dennis (bio)
Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge among the Chumash People of Southern California Jan Timbrook, with botanical watercolors by Chris Chapman. Berkeley: Heydey Books. Paper, $27.95. ISBN: 978-1-59714-048-5. 272 pages.

Ethnobotany is the study of the relationship between plants and culture. By any standard, Jan Timbrook has written a model ethnobotany of the Chumash people of southwestern California. I was particularly impressed by both the quantity and quality of details on the Chumash use of native (and some non-native) plants. Timbrook's scholarship offers a surprisingly complete ethnobotany, considering that genocide and death from disease occurred extremely rapidly for many California tribes, beginning with the Mission period of the late 18th century (and following the Gold Rush in mid 19th century for the rest of California and southwestern Oregon), with little time for scholarly documentation of precontact cultures. Typically, native herbal books and ethnobotanies from California are slim on information compared to the eastern United States, where there was more time for contact between Indian knowledge-holders and ethnographers.

The author was fortunate to have had access to the field notes of noted anthropologist and linguist John P. Harrington (1884–1961), who rushed to record some of the last Native American knowledge-holders and language speakers who were born early enough in the 19th century to have had exposure to the knowledge carried by elders who survived the devastating first contact with whites. He worked furiously to record the languages and cultures of California and Oregon tribes, working intermittently with Chumash consultants (formerly called "informants") from 1911 to his death in 1961. Harrington's sense of urgency was apparently so great that he never got around to organizing his one million pages of notes into a format accessible to scholars.

Timbrook began her research 30 years ago when she discovered Harrington's 300,000 pages of Chumash cultural and linguistic material housed at the National Anthropological Archives of the Smithsonian Institution. Her first task was deciphering Harrington's handwriting. (I once attempted to read his raw field notes at the University of Washington's archives while researching the Takelma and Dakubetede cultures of southwestern Oregon and found them practically indecipherable, with scrawls resembling my young son's first scribblings. Perhaps because of the difficulties of transcription to microfilm, around 90% of most ethnographic field notes remain stored in boxes in museum basements.)

Incredibly, Timbrook mastered Harrington's handwriting while continuing her work as curator of ethnography at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and, over the next 30 years, began to painstakingly organize the scattered bits of Chumash ethnobotany into a coherent system, effectively finishing the salvage ethnography begun nearly a century before by Harrington. He had recorded plant names in one or more of the six Chumash languages (some mutually unintelligible), Latin genus and species, Spanish, and English. Timbrook includes these in her text. Harrington also provided plant names for 450 still extant voucher specimens, enabling Timbrook, with the help of her botanist husband and other botanists at the Natural History Museum, to identify plants by species or at least to genus. These vouchers were indispensable, since many common names may be used to describe a single plant species and one name may describe several different species. There are 38 watercolor illustrations of plants by Chris Chapman, as well as scenes of Chumash daily life by the author. [End Page 223]

The traditional territories of the six Chumash bands were situated in what is now Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Ventura, and western Kern Counties, and four of the northern Santa Barbara Channel Islands in southwestern California. (The author uses the term "chiefdoms" instead of "bands" because she wants to underscore the sophisticated political governance and social organization of the Chumash, compared to "bands" that suggests a more "primitive" hunter-gatherer culture. I discuss the differences and the anthropology behind these terms below.) It was one of the densest populations of Indian people north of Mexico City, estimated at between 15,000 and 25,000 persons in a relatively small geographical area. (My own educated guess is that...


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