Early Central Coast flutes

Photo © 2011 “Mike” Michael L. Baird, mike {at] mikebaird d o t com, flickr.bairdphotos.com
In 1542 the Portuguese explorer Cabrillo sailed up the California coast and overwintered in the Santa Barbara channel where he encountered the Indians of the Central Coast.  Over two hundred years later the Portola expedition reached the Central Coast overland from the south with a group of Spanish soldiers and padres.  Friar Juan Crespi had this to say about his travels through the villages near Goleta in 1746: “At all of these towns they have very well carven flutes and pipes, which they play on at their dances, and they are all of them very much given to dancing; in order to dance , they all come out wearing very large feather headdresses, with all the rest of their bodies so painted in all hues that it appears like a thick garment.”   And elsewhere he writes,

“Ever since Santa Catalina de Bononia [now Encino], these villages have been employing very well carven wooden flutes, and pipes. They are great ones for dances and reels: about 20 of them came again last night with pipes...”   

[Photo credits: Photo © 2011 “Mike” Michael L. Baird, mike {at] mikebaird d o t com, flickr.bairdphotos.com]

“All of them have greatly entertained us by coming over with their flutes and pipes, many of them heavily painted and wearing their large feather headdresses for the dancing which they did for us. Our officers presented them with beads and ribbons, and they have spent the whole time that we have been here with us, as friendly as though they had dealt with us forever.”

What did the Chumash* "very well carven flutes" look like?   They were rim blown, with four or six holes, made of elderberry wood or bone, often painted red with no other ornamentation.  A four hole rim blown flute is on display at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, http://www.sbnature.org/  The book "The Material Culture of the Chumash Interaction Sphere, Vol IV" says that John Harrington, the Chumash ethnographer, was provided with this description by an anonymous consultant: "The flute was of elder with four holes.  It was played for pleasure or for making love.  On it a tune was played."  And, "There was an elder flute, on which special flute music was played." 

Harrington described the Chumash flute as this: "Called the Indian kind of flute towoli'lay in Venturano, tiwalu'lay in Barbareno, and towoli'lay in Cruzeno.  The flute or rather flageolet [note that a rim blown flute is not a flageolet -- perhaps Herrington was mistaken in using the term] such as the Indians used , was made of elderberry wood, about 2 feet long, with four holes.  Later when there was bamboo at the mission, they used bamboo instead.  It was played by old and young men.

"When a man was in practice he could play any Indian song on a flute.  Fernando Librado heard them playing, but he did not hear the words.  They said the words came from one's heart.  There were tunes for victory, a funeral or a man in danger.  The flute plays but the heart understands the words.  The shan could play the flute but they did not understand the mysterious meaning, but when the 'antap played the flute they knew what it meant. I intone, meaning I understand the meaning, like the 'antap."

Two flutes from San Nicholas Island are pictured which have five finger holes, quartz crystals glued into the lower end with asphaltum and also appear to have mouthpieces inserted.   It appears that these flutes could not be played.

Several whistles were found at an archeological dig in Diablo Canyon.   The whistles are played by blowing the end hole which forces the air out over an asphaltum plug in the center hole and across an edge.  Whistles were used in ceremonies and as a warning when bears were about.
Rattles were made by the Chumash from Pismo clam shells holding small pebbles and sealed with asphaltum.  Also turtle shells were used as were the cocoons of some type of insect.

According to this web site, http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=23527, flutes made from the wing bones of California Condors have been found in archeological sites in Central California. 

A description of California Indian musical instruments before contact with the Spaniards can be found here: http://www.pacwesttraders.com/musical2.html

Studies at Diablo Canyon have provided a basis for revolutionary understanding of the age of the Chumash culture. A site here was the first which identified 9,500 years of continuous occupation by the Chumash along the California coastline. The information, for the most part, was based on artifacts dug up and removed from the Chumash Village burial grounds. Several other Chumash sites remain undated.

Recently, over 60 new Chumash archaeological sites were recorded in the area of Los Osos. Where the mouth of a creek once entered Morro Bay, an old Chumash village stood. The village's age is unknown; it was destroyed to make way for an industrial use. Hundreds of Chumash sites ring Morro Bay.
The Chumash village site, Cayucos, is adjacent to Estero Bay. Its age seems to be nearly 8000 years of continuous habitation. Further north in Cambria, but south of Santa Rosa Creek, two Chumash village sites have been dated 10,000 years old. Other large sites are also found in the area.

 *The name "Chumash" was originally given by mainlanders to the people who inhabited Santa Cruz Island.  We use it here to refer to the Native Americans who inhabited the coastal area between Malibu and Cambria.