Archive for June, 2018


California Welcome Sign

Today is the summer solstice, on which I tend to write about archaeoastronomy. This time I’d like to briefly discuss an area with a rich heritage of Native astronomy that seems to get relatively little discussion: California.

California is known in anthropological circles for the astonishing variety of cultural and sociopolitical groups that traditionally inhabited this climatically favorable, highly productive area. Although these groups were all devastated to varying degrees by the influx of Anglo settlers in the nineteenth century, and some were also heavily affected by earlier Spanish colonization starting in the late eighteenth, most of them are fairly well documented ethnographically due to the extensive “salvage ethnography” pioneered by Alfred Kroeber and his students at Berkeley in the early twentieth century. There is therefore a rich base of data in which to look for evidence of Native astronomical observations, and a paper published in 1979 by Travis Hudson, Georgia Lee, and Ken Hedges does just that, in addition to reporting some early archaeoastronomical observations at California archaeological sites. The paper focuses specifically on solstice observations, which tend to be among the most important astronomical practices in many cultures.

The authors’ review of the literature shows that observation of the solstices was widespread in Native California. The vast majority of groups they investigated had some record of solstice observation, and most of those that did not may just not have had it documented. Only two groups were associated with definite statements that they did not observe any solstices, and even these might be due to mistaken information.

The winter solstice was by far the most commonly observed, with relatively few groups also observing the summer solstice and none observing summer but not winter. This ties in to a widespread pattern of keeping a calendar that often began with the winter solstice. A general geographic pattern held that Southern California groups were more likely to observe both solstices, while Northern California groups tended to only observe the winter one. This is in keeping with broader geographic patterns, with Southwestern groups generally observing both solstices but Northwest Coast groups focusing on the winter. There are many other cultural patterns connecting these two parts of California to these adjacent culture areas as well.

In addition to the ethnographic data, the authors report on several observations of potential solstice observation alignments at archaeological sites, mostly those involving rock art. These again showed a general pattern of most often aligning with the winter rather than the summer solstice. In some cases the rock art associated with these observation points contained apparent solar imagery, and in a few cases the authors even suggest that some of the rock art symbols represent the actual horizon line along which the sun was observed. This is a fascinating suggestion that I have not seen made of any other area, so it may be distinctively Californian if it holds up. They include examples of other rock art of similar form that may also be interpreted this way, although it has not been tested for alignments.

All in all, this is a fascinating introduction to the astronomy of a culture area that doesn’t get as much attention in this respect as others like the Southwest and Plains. While this was an early paper in the development of archaeoastronomy and not all of its conclusions may hold up, it is still an excellent starting point. Happy solstice!



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