Prehistory of Los Angeles

Chumash Rock PaintingMany people are unaware that the history of Los Angeles began as much as twenty-five thousand years ago – well before the first Europeans arrived in Southern California.

When the Spaniards arrived, there was no City of Los Angeles. The native Indians had their own culture, and for thousands of years had roamed the land freely as hunters and gatherers. They lived in villages clustered together on the shores and the banks of the rivers that were much more natural and beautiful than today.

Up until just three centuries ago, the Los Angeles River slowly wandered through marshes and forests of willow and sycamore. The river spawned trout, while grizzly bears roamed its shores. The river created a land of plenty that helped to support one of the largest concentrations of Indians in North America. Many are unaware of how much a contribution the river had on the future Los Angleles. Today, in some places it can barely be seen, or is concreted over. Few can imagine how beautiful the river and it’s surroundings were before the Europeans arrived.

The area was first peopled by a Hokan-speaking people from the Milling Stone Period who fished, hunted sea mammals, and gathered wild seeds.

They were later replaced by migrants in approximately 200-500 AD for so far unknown reasons; though speculation has it that they were fleeing drought in the Great Basin. These peoples spoke a Uto-Aztecan language called Tongva or Shoson. The Tongva were later called Gabrielinos. The Tongva name for the Los Angeles region was Yaa.

Other indigenous groups included the Cupeño, Luiseño, Serrano. Yet more include the Kawengnam, Asuzangna, Topanga, Cucamongna, Tuhumgna, Maliwu, Simi, Kamulos, Kastic, Yangna, Suangna, and Pasbengna, and the Cahuilla [Kaweah] in Riverside that had a population of more than 10,000 in fifty towns.

The hills and valleys surrounding Los Angeles still ring to the names of some of those tribes, most sadly now long gone.

By the time of the arrival of the Spaniards in the 18th century, there were known to be around 250,000 to 300,000 inhabitants in California and 5,000 in the Los Angles basin. After contact with the Europeans, the people in the future Los Angeles area were known as Gabrielinos and Fernandeños, named after the missions of San Gabriel and San Fernando.

Quite a few Indians joined the missions and upon conversion to Christianity, were compelled to abandon their villages and culture. The Indians were decimated by white man’s diseases and his partly absorbed culture that created natives that had no real direction of their own, setting them on a road to destruction.

The Gabrielinos land originally covered about four thousand square miles, including the enormous floodplain drained by the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers and the southern Channel Islands. It also covered the Santa Barbara, San Clemente, Santa Catalina, and San Nicholas Islands.

They formed part of a sophisticated trading group that included the Chumash to the north, the Cahuilla and Mojave to the east, and the Juaneños and Luiseños to the south.

The Gabrielinos religious and cultural practices included belief in creative supernatural forces. Their creator god was called Chinigchinix, along with a female virgin god, Chukit. They had a purification ritual similar to the Eucharist in which they drank tolguache, a hallucinogenic made from jimson weed and salt water.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, the Gabrielinos had already occupied the best sites, so the future survival and success of Los Angeles depended greatly on the presence of a nearby and prosperous Gabrielino village that was called Yang-na.

Yang-na would provide the future colonists with resources such as seafood, fish, bowls, pelts, and baskets. The Indians would dig ditches, haul water, and provide domestic help for pay, though the Indians were often treated badly as their cultures knew little or no violence, making them placid by nature. They frequently intermarried with the colonists.

By 1841, at the time of the first American settlers arrival in the Los Angeles area, any Tongva survivors were scattered and working at subsistence level on Mexican land grants.

However, the situation has revived somewhat. In more recent times there is considerable revival of Indian culture. Many remaining Native Americans are now trying hard to preserve what little of their culture is left to them.

Chumash History Website