Baskets in Caves: A View of the Chumash World


Wendy Whitby (University of Central Lancashire)                                         

Baskets in Caves: A View of the Chumash World

This paper will discuss the material culture associated with ‘cache caves’ that are distributed across the Santa Barbara backcountry in south-central California. The material provides a new and unique perspective on indigenous lifeways within the understudied interior region, and particularly allows us to consider the central role of basketry in this native world. More than 400 artefacts have been recovered from cache caves, many made from exceptionally preserved organic material, including approximately seventy baskets that are almost intact. Additionally there are basket fragments, reed matting, twined seed-beaters, netting, and the raw materials associated with basket-making. Other artefacts include feather bands, deer-tibia whistles and wooden bullroarers.

A rich ethnographic record, accumulated by John Peabody Harrington in the early 20th century, enabled Travis Hudson and Tom Blackburn (1982; 1983; 1985; 1986; 1987) to construct a picture of how material culture was used by the Chumash people and neighbouring cultural groups. This has revealed that basketry was central to indigenous life in this part of California, being used for gathering seeds, carrying raw materials, cooking and presenting food, carrying and storing water, and storing ceremonial regalia. Basketry would have pervaded all aspects of indigenous life, and basket making would have therefore been a critically important activity. Native women would have devoted many hours to the collection and preparation of basketry raw materials. Many more hours would then be spent on weaving the characteristic twined and coiled baskets associated with Chumash culture.

The Chumash were ‘complex’ hunter-gatherers who relied on the storage of foodstuffs such as acorns to ensure long-term availability of food. The evidence suggests that cache caves had two main functions, firstly as storage areas for food and other raw materials, and secondly as storage places for ceremonial and ritual paraphernalia. Baskets appear to have had a major role in both these functions. The material culture found in cache caves thus provides empirical data to help understand how basketry was manufactured, used, and reused


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