Indigenous Peoples Left Mark on Land

By STEVEN FINACOM Special to the Planet
Tuesday October 14, 2003

Berkeley’s first American-era settlers arrived in 1853, which seems quite a long time ago. Yet this area had been chosen and shaped as a good place to live by others at a much earlier date—not 150, but at least 5,000, years ago. 

The most familiar physical remains left by those early inhabitants are the Bay Area’s shoreline “shell mounds,” including West Berkeley’s landmark site, now largely buried beneath parking lots, buildings, train tracks and industrial sites. 

The archaeology of the shell mounds was explored in an evening talk earlier this month at West Berkeley’s Finn Hall by UC Berkeley Professor Kent Lightfoot, an expert in local archaeology.  

Lightfoot was joined by local publisher and author Malcolm Margolin who also spoke about the native peoples and culture of the Berkeley area. 

Their presentations were the first in a series of events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the little manufacturing hamlet of Ocean View, Berkeley’s first modern settlement.  

Interpretation of the Bay Area’s shell mounds is tied up with the development of modern archaeological programs at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, Lightfoot said. 

Archaeologist Max Uhle began excavations at Emeryville’s shell mound in 1902. “He did some of the first stratigraphic excavation in the United States,” said Lightfoot. “It was something that was very innovative at the time.” 

In 1903 Danish immigrant Nels Nelson arrived in Berkeley and in 1906 he began work in local archaeology, funded by UC Regent Phoebe Hearst and others. “From the period of 1906 to 1911 he did very important work with these shell mounds. He went out on a very small budget to locate and record all the archaeological sites he could find in the Bay Area,” said Lightfoot. Nelson ultimately documented some 125 shell mounds and excavated several. “A lot of this was done before there was real heavy development,” Lightfoot noted. Today, it’s difficult to even find many of the sites. 

Later, researchers at UC added to the knowledge of shell mounds, eventually documenting about 425 around the Bay Area. They are “typically found in clusters of four to six mounds,” Lightfoot said, and some were monumental, “covering a couple of football fields in size” and rising up to 40 feet high. The mounds contain a complex stratigraphy, layering ashes, artifacts, and the remains of animals including elk, deer, seals, sea otters, fish and birds, as well as enormous numbers of shells.  

“Literally tons and tons of shellfish made up those mounds,” Lightfoot said. Nelson had estimated that some 17 million shells had been deposited at a mound he excavated in Richmond. 

Five thousand years ago sea levels were rising and “the Bay began to develop the configuration we know today,” Lightfoot said. “The earliest of the shell mounds go back about 5,000 years. West Berkeley, in fact, has the earliest Carbon 14 dates in the Bay Area for a shell mound.” 

The Bay Area mounds were used for millennia, particularly between 500 B.C. and A.D. 900—what Lightfoot called their “Golden Age.” Initially, Lightfoot said, scholars thought the shell mounds were essentially “trash dumps.” In the 1940s a theory emerged that they were mounded villages and “that’s probably the most common way the mounds are interpreted today.” 

Later theories have developed, holding that the mounds were not used all year but served ceremonial purposes, for burials or for annual gatherings. Hundreds of burials have been found in Bay Area shell mounds, often in pairs or small groups. Lightfoot said some scholars now believe that the significance of Bay Area mound burials may center on connecting the deceased to the natural world. “People were being buried not in ‘trash’ but in what gave them life,” the shell fish. 

Although there are prehistoric mounds across the country, the Bay Area shell mounds may be unique across North America in that they don’t appear to have had substantial villages built on them and, elsewhere, “you don’t have massive burials like we did here,” Lightfoot said. 

Lightfoot places the Bay Area’s shell mounds in the “archaic period” of hunter/gatherer mound building in North America, before agrarian cultures emerged. He took note of more recent work by researchers, including Berkeley historian Richard Schwartz, who “has detected extensive midden deposits up in the Berkeley Hills,” in areas long covered by subdivisions. “It’s amazing what may be out there—the archaeology that may be in your backyard.” 

Many native settlements along East Bay creeks, associated rock art, and burials found elsewhere in the Bay Area date from the “Golden Age” of shell mounds. 

“What’s happening is we’re seeing a little more complicated picture. You have the mounds down by the Bay shore, but in the uplands there’s something going on as well.” 

Lightfoot called for “a two-pronged plan of action.” First, “preservation and protection of the local archaeology” and, second, analysis of the extensive materials already in museum collections “to try to do a better job of understanding the lifeways of the early native peoples here.”  

Following Lightfoot’s slide-illustrated presentation, author and local publisher Malcolm Margolin spoke movingly about Bay Area native culture. Noting that the first European settlements in the Bay Area came in the 1770s, only “two and a half long lifetimes ago…amazingly close,” Margolin outlined his sense of the Berkeley area before the Spanish arrived. 

“This was a land that was tended,” he said. “This was not a wilderness. The people who lived here lived in a land that was well known, that was comfortable,” shaped by fire and other human interventions to produce plant and animal resources in abundance. Instead of land “ownership,” Berkeley’s natives probably possessed rights to hunting, to fishing, and other opportunities to gather resources from the landscape. They left some enduring artifacts, but others—prayer flags, hunting trails, places where certain types of bulbs or basket making materials would be gathered, art created of perishable items—have now vanished from the landscape. 

“These little villages would have 60 to 70 people in them, perhaps 100,” Margolin said. “Living in a world where you would rarely see a stranger…a tight world of community, of familiarity.” Life revolved around changes in the natural landscape such as the ripening of acorns or berries, or the arrival of migrating birds or salmon. “It was linked events, and each village and its place had its own.” And “it was a world that was very personal.” Objects were created one by one, for their individual users, with individual character. “Everything you owned was unique. Everything had history, resonance.” 

Finally, Margolin said, “it was a world of tremendous religious intensity. There was a sense that the things in the world were as alive and intelligent as we are.” Animals could do things humans could not—eagles flew, bears were immensely strong, antelope had great speed. “Animals still had power in the world. They still had the power to inspire. In a way, they were another kind of people.” 

Margolin concluded by noting that elsewhere in the United States, native peoples, were often able to negotiate treaties with the American government and retain fragmentary lands and some sovereign rights. But in the Bay Area, decades of Spanish/Mexican rule scattered and dispossessed the original inhabitants. “Native peoples were invisible to the Anglos who came in” and land and rights were never secured. 

However, “one of the most glorious things I’ve seen has been the revival of Indian culture over the past 30 years,” he concluded. “What has been marvelously regained is culture.” 

Both Lightfoot and Margolin took questions and commented on the recent construction of a shopping mall on the site of the Emeryville shell mound.  

“They had the opportunity, I think, do some preservation in place and they chose not to. It’s a real shame what happened,” Lightfoot said. 

Margolin added, “as long as people wait around for something to be destroyed, and then go in to try to fight it, not much is going to happen.” That was the case at Emeryville, where development plans were already well advanced when organized protests began. 

“I think the thing that needs to be done is to identify these cultural sites right now to make certain that cities acknowledge them, to make certain they’re written into school curricula, to make certain they’re given special status…” 


The celebration of Ocean View’s 150th anniversary continues with once-weekly lectures and events through late November. Next up, on Thursday, Oct. 16, is a talk at Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont, by naturalist Beverly Ortiz. She will be speaking about the native culture of the Bay Area at a site where, unlike Berkeley, much of the natural landscape has been preserved. The talk is at 7:30. Call 795-9385 for directions. Tickets are $10 at the door; series tickets are also available. Call 841-8562 for more information on the series, or e-mail bahaworks@yahoo.com.