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Native Americans and California Geography

geography native americans
Native Americans and California Geography

Native Americans of California

When Did Humans Come to California?

No one knows when the first human beings arrived in California. Scientists think that the first groups arrived in North America by crossing a land bridge from Asia at least 13,000 years ago. 

Some of these people probably migrated south to California both by sea and land. Some people also came to California from the east, such as the  


It is impossible to know the population of California prior to the arrival of the Spanish, but scientists think that about 300,00 Native Americans lived in Alta California in 1769. That is about one person per square mile.

Most people lived in small communities, in settlements or groups of villages of not more than a few hundred at a time. Many moved around to find food more easily, while others lived in the same village for hundreds of years. All supported themselves by hunting, tending and gathering wild plants, and in coast areas by fishing or hunting marine mammals. 

Geographic Distribution

Native American groups lived all over California and adapted to the geography of their areas. Some adapted to the rainforest environment of the Northwest, while others adapted to the drier environment of the Northeastern part of the state. Some of the major native groups in these areas were the Hoopa in the west and the Modoc in the east. 

The environment of the central part of the state varies greatly, from the coastal areas to the Central Valley to the slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Some of the major tribes of Central California are the Ohlone, the Miwok and the Yokuts.

Tribes like the Northern Paiute adapted themselves to the dry desert climate of the Great Basin, while Southern California, with its mix of coastal and desert climates is home to groups such as the Chumash and the Kumeyaay

Finally, certain groups of people, such as the Yuma and the Mohave, who lived along the Colorado River, were farmers who raised vegetable crops like corn, beans and squash.

Using Resources

Most Indian tribes in what is today California based their diet on wild animals and plants. 

When hunting land animals, Indians used many types of traps, snares and blinds to make the best use of their energy and harvest large quantities of game, including insects. The same would be true of tribes that lived along the coast or rivers: when fishing or hunting marine mammals, it was often more efficient to use nets and other devices to gather larger quantities to help feed the tribe and have food left over for storage.

The same was true for gathering plants. During harvest season, Indians would collect large amounts of plants, fruits and seeds. Some of these would be eaten and others stored for use when food was hard to find. Some foods could be eaten fresh, while acorns, for example, had to be processed and cooked.

Modifying the Physical Environment

Native Americans also did many things in order to better use the land around them. They pruned trees and planted seeds in fertile areas to help them grow better. They built dams across streams and rivers to help irrigate dry areas. They dug holes in rocks to help with grinding of foods like acorns. 

Probably one of the most important things California Indians did with their environment was to set fires from time to time. By burning the land, they would kill off dry underbrush and cause many seeds to sprout and new vegetation to grow. This would also attract wild animals to these areas that could then be hunted.


But California Indians could not always find or make everything they needed to survive. Different Native American groups would also trade with each other for important items. They would exchange food or tools or use beads made out of shells (shell beads) as a type of money to pay for items or to give as gifts. Some groups, like the Chumash, would travel by boat up and down the California coast to trade with other tribes. 

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