- The Chumash World at European Contact: Power, Trade, and Feasting among Complex Hunter-Gatherers
Most hunter-gatherers of the recent past lived in small groups that were seasonally mobile. Their typically egalitarian ethos has made them a draw for diverse sets of researchers, from anthropologists seeking analogues of our prehistoric ancestors to those environmentalists who view ethnographic forager groups as role models for the stewardship of natural resources. The Chumash Indians of California's Santa Barbara region represent one of a handful of "complex" hunter-gatherer groups known in the historic era. Such groups were distinctly non-egalitarian. As sedentary foragers, many made a living off of rich marine resources and practiced warfare and slavery—habits we are more likely to associate with large-scale agriculturalists. Complex foragers like the Chumash, Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest, and the Calusa of Florida are the rare cases that demonstrate the potential for social hierarchy to develop in the absence of an agricultural economy.
In The Chumash World at European Contact, Lynn Gamble draws together archaeological, ethnohistoric, and historic data to form a picture of Chumash society at the peak of its complexity, as witnessed by the 1769 Spanish Portolá expedition, the first European land voyage to California. The social and economic factors that allowed for this complexity to develop are the focus of Gamble's precise and thorough analysis.
The book is notable as the first major work on the mainland Chumash. Previous efforts have focused on the communities of Chumash who lived on the nearby Channel Islands, where better preservation and a slower pace of modern development offer archaeological and climatic records of greater time depth and resolution. Gamble argues that it was on the mainland, however, where resources were once diverse and plentiful, that Chumash groups developed a complex political economy with exchange networks that tied them to their relatively impoverished Channel Island neighbors. Gamble's book thus forms an [End Page 534] essential complement to Douglas J. Kennett's recent work The Island Chumash: Behavioral Ecology of a Maritime Society (2005). While Kennett explores long-term change in island Chumash human-environmental interactions, Gamble focuses on internal societal machinations on the mainland within a more limited time span. (Both represent major research thrusts in contemporary archaeology.) Gamble effectively sidesteps the problem of the climatic black box by focusing our attention on the risk-coping strategies developed by the mainland Chumash, rather than on their possible drivers.
Elements of these risk reduction strategies are already well documented in the Chumash literature and include rich evidence for the exchange of shell bead currency, furs, baskets, and other goods between mainland, inland, and island locales. What Gamble does that is truly new is assemble these elements into an argument that Chumash socioeconomic complexity grew from the establishment of a system of "network power," one of several possible pathways to inequality proposed by recent theorists. In systems of network power, individuals vie for control over the production and distribution of goods across an ecologically patchy landscape. This contrasts with corporate-oriented power strategies, in which wealth, power, and labor are shared more evenly across a society, which, theorists argue, is likely to occur when resources are also evenly distributed.
Ecological diversity in the mainland Santa Barbara region is thus foundational to the author's argument, and she begins by discussing the environmental and cultural settings in which exchanges would have taken place. Network power relies not only on an uneven distribution of natural resources, but also on a constant flow of people and commodities between settlements. Gamble takes pains to discuss no fewer than twenty contact-era villages along the mainland coast, to suggest that a hierarchy in settlement sizes was tied to established political hierarchies throughout the region. It is notoriously difficult to estimate past population sizes from archaeological or documentary evidence, especially in the disease-ravaged contact era, something Gamble freely admits. Regional variation in resource densities alone, however, would likely have contributed to differences in...