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Old Salt Lake | Virtual Museum

Exhibit 6

1904, "Skill And Inventive Ability of The Aborigines of Southern California", by Elizabeth Mills-Stetson, 1904 Scientific American, Vol. 57

[ Transcribed ]


By Elizabeth Mills-Stetson.

In nearly all of the archaeological excavations that have been made in California, and more especially along the coast, there have been found among the relics of the Indians many pieces that were of European manufacture. All of these pieces, metal, glass beads, and such articles, are conclusive evidence of the mingling of the two races in trade.

They show that the Indians were brought in contact with the civilized world, that they received impressions from that source, and that they were thereby affected to a large extent in mind and in morals. They determine, in addition to all of this, the date at which these people were living whose remains are now being unearthed. They show that the tribes whose graves are thus filled were not a race that lived previous to the time of a civilized invasion. The date may by such means be approximately fixed, and the time of their inhabitancy determined.

To these tribes no special merit can be ascribed, for indeed the knowledge of their native ability can hardly be ascertained. It would be a difficult matter to determine just how far that ability had been affected by the stronger foreign influence.

There were, however, some Indian graveyards unearthed recently at Redondo, a small seaside resort in Los Angeles County, California, of a very unusual character. These contained none of the distinguishing marks of invasion. There were no pieces of metal, not even a single glass bead; no trace of the slightest interference with the works of utility or art, was there shown. It was aboriginal work that was laid bare In all its unique and interesting features, a very ancient and remarkable burying ground, and a valuable archaeological discovery.

It was while laying the water mains for a street in the town of Redondo that the find was made. Such occurrences are generally by chance; although many scientists have searched this territory, and, in fact, even in the outskirts of the town, for old burial places; yet the chance finding is not at all uncommon. The coast line was a prominent place for building sites and graveyards; villages sprang up here in great numbers, for reasons of trade, and for the easy means that the sea furnished of obtaining a living.

When the skeletons were taken from the Redondo burying ground, they fell to pieces almost as soon as they came in contact with the air. The smallest bones were not in existence at all. They had all gone to dust; not one of them was to be seen. There were a great many of the large bones, making in all several hundred bodies. None of these have been preserved, owing to their great age and crumbly state of decomposition.

In the tomb, which was probably not more than four and a half feet below the surface of the street, there were found what might be called impressionist works In stone carving. The most remarkable of these pieces were the animal figures, which were cut mostly in the round. There was an old bear with rather stiff legs, but a splendid delineation of head and face. It was as if the aborigine spoke through this image to his admiring observers in this wise:

"He is a beast with a head! His head come first, it bites, it howls, it makes known his presence to man. This is the most important feature, so will I make it complete, regular, symmetrical, and natural"; and so he did.

A short tail was given to the animal, which gave him his usual bunty appearance. A dear little cub image was also found in the collection, with all the cunning suggestions of his nature show in his cubby little figure. The wildcat was perhaps as well depicted as any, with its thick tail and tufted ears. In addition to these animals, there were a set of fishes, among which were two whales, a porpoise, and a dolphin. All of these were carved with sufficient and distinguishing details to make their identity perfectly well known.

Unique pipes, such as can be duplicated in no museum in the world, were found there. The bore and stem were unlike those commonly found in other places in California, but more like the work done by the Indians of the far East. There was no striation like that which is left by a stone drill; the bore was perfectly circular in section, and of uniform diameter throughout. Such skill, such patience, such mechanical ability, as were here shown by the aborigines! The marvel is how they ever did this work with so few and Imperfect implements for manufacture.

With little or no inclination from the straight line of the stem, were nearly all of the other pipes of the early California Indians made. A few have been found, but they are exceedingly rare and valuable, that have a slight bend about two-thirds of the way down the stem. Among those found at Redondo there were several with the bowl and stem placed at approximately right angles. This most unusual arrangement in the manufacture of the Indian pipe is what renders it of such a unique and valuable character. The like has never been seen in any of the very old relics, they are not found in any of the museums, and cannot be duplicated. Their value is, therefore, hardly to be reckoned in common currency.

It is not a little strange that these people, who were, so to speak, alone and unaided, should have made such a contrivance. They seem to have realized the same necessity for the angle in the stem of a pipe that the civilized man found. They were not long in settling the question of how this should be accomplished. The aboriginal mind was perfectly capable of grasping a situation, and of making all the arrangement necessary for its contiguous circumstances. They made the device to fit the requirement. Uninfluenced as' they were by other and more enlightened nations, the invention does credit to their native ability and skill.

Such credit as this cannot be given to the Indians whose burial places disclose trade relations with the people of foreign nations. These people are forever tainted with the suggestion of plagiarism in art and imitation in handicraft. They can never satisfy a skeptical world that they originated even the smallest part of their belongings. Side by side with all that they possessed are the telltale remnants of the works of others; and how far their own work was changed or made better by reason of the foreign inventions, can never be entirely determined.

In this unique collection there were found no less than fifteen well-carved boats. These were not very large, but the same rigid care and excellent skill were displayed in preserving the exact proportion, such perfect proportion as is displayed in few of the larger specimens that were intended for their own actual use. The little boats were perfect in every way, and not without a considerable amount of decoration and detail. They were a most interesting part of the collection.

There were also some very curious-looking carved objects, for which no use could be determined. They were hook-shaped, spike and spoon-shaped pieces, and of rather peculiar manufacture. Their surfaces were not worn by handling, showing that they had not been exposed to a common or familiar use; evidently they were used only on ceremonious occasions. More than likely they were objects set aside for private and sacred uses only, and of a votive character.

The tools with which these wonderful pieces of Invention were made were of a different character from those commonly used in this section. They were made more like those of the far North, of Oregon and Washington, and resembled the chipped stone implements. The fineness of their work was thus enhanced, and the power to make accurate estimates of figure and exact proportions of space was thus given its fullest scope. It was not necessary to remove large pieces from the stone; bit by bit it was chipped away, until at last the perfected piece was created from the rude stone.

With these crude instruments the Indians worked better than they could have done with finely polished steel tools. The crumbly stone with which they fashioned their pieces would have been crushed with the metal implements. Wood can be carved better with steel than stone, and it was probably for this reason that we find no wooden images left by the aborigines. They saw the inferiority of the work which they had tried to accomplish by working with stone upon wood, and gave up the effort as futile. They seem to have scorned any creation that was not adapted to a perfect execution. Neither were they given to imitation.

There is every reason to believe that they knew of the tribes to the north, east, and southeast, and more than likely sustained active trade relations with these neighbors. They could not have failed to do so, as they were an active, progressive, pushing people. Yet they did not adopt the ideas of these contemporaries, or If they did so, it was with such changes and improvements that they entertained the foreign ideas of other tribes as to make those ideas in reality quite their own.

They did not manufacture pottery, and for this reason they have been thought by superficial observers to have been deficient in their aesthetic nature. In reality, this was a triumph of thought and feeling over the base desire to imitate that which was bright and pleasing to the eye. There was clay in abundance and close at hand, which they could have worked up into pottery no doubt with superior skill and finish. They could have made pottery, doubtless, that would have far outrivaled that of their neighbors; but they did not do so because they had something that was better.

Soapstone, or steatite, was a better material than clay: it was less perishable, could be placed in smoke and fire without injury, was not easily cracked or marred, and was altogether better than pottery. On this they lavished their attention, putting all their skill to the task of making beautiful, different-colored, and highly decorated pieces. With this material they could make not only the cooking utensils and other household and utility articles, but also the many beautiful carved images of animals, fishes, and other objects. It is this steadfastness that has rendered their relics a most valuable find to the students of ethnology. They seemed to have scorned change where unnecessary, and to have remained untained to the last by any outside influences, from whatever source and of whatever character. There was to them no call so loud as the call of their own imagination, and no faith so deep as that founded in their own powers of invention.

They used the flat "metates," somewhat like those used later in Mexico, except for the three legs. They used no heavy cooking pots or clumsy sandstone mortars and pestles. Instead of such ugly utensils, used by the Indians of the North and East, these people had shallow serpentine vessels, finely wrought, well polished, and light of weight. The essence of refinement is thus shown in the works that surrounded them in their daily and menial labor. It was not only in the finely-worked carvings for votive and decorative uses that these people showed their aesthetic and inventive nature; they were naturally artistic and skillful, and these tendencies found expression in everything that they did.

The most of these relics are now in the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, with the famous collection of Palmer antiquities. They are, indeed, a part of that collection, very properly so, and were purchased and placed there by Dr. F. M. Palmer, of Los Angeles, Cal., who spent the greater part of seventeen years in making the original collection.

Some of the things that have been said of this collection by eminent archaeologists are indeed most eulogistic. Prof. Holmes, of the Smithsonian Institution, said: "No museum on earth can duplicate it, and the scientific accuracy of its classification is such, that I accept Dr. Palmer's opinions as conclusive."

Prof. Lumholtz, employed by the United States government in archaeological research, said: "It is the most perfect collection of the artifects of a primitive people ever made by any collector or scientific institution in the world."

Prof. P. W. Kelsey, secretary of the American Archaeological Institute, said: "There is no collection in America that equals it; no waste material, a concrete, scientific whole. In order to find any parallel for the work Dr. Palmer has done, you must go to some of the local museums of European states, where the collection and preservation of archaeological objects has been carried on for generations or centuries by the government. I can only express my amazement that with a foundation so grand as this collection, there should be no museum in Los Angeles."

Prof. Wilcomb, of the Golden Gate Park Museum, San Francisco, said: "It was the greatest disappointment of my life that I failed to secure this collection for the museum in San Francisco."

No articles with reference to the collection have ever been published in any scientific journals, though Dr. Palmer has often been importuned to prepare and have published the data in his possession. He has, however, steadfastly refused, preferring that such publication should be officially made by the museum that he has always believed would be eventually established in Los Angeles.

Dr. Palmer has spent many years in investigating the territory in and about Redondo, and has made many valuable collections from these excavations. It is a rich archaeological section, and one well worth the research and investigation. He was the first archaeologist to get to the spot when this latest and most valuable discovery was made.

The work of excavating lasted about ten days. The men who were engaged in digging the water mains, being the discoverers, were, of course, entitled to dispose of the relics. They realized seven or eight hundred dollars, a small sum when considering the great value that these pieces are to both ethnologists and archaeologists. The most of them went to Dr. Palmer; the balance, which were duplicates and pieces less valuable from a scientific standpoint, were brought by curio dealers and private collectors. Of these there were some fifteen or twenty present.

It is greatly to be regretted that any of these unique and interesting pieces were ever given over to the charge of any but curators of museums. They are too valuable as historic relics to sacrifice to private uses. The public and the men of advanced learning and science should, by all means, have access to any such relics as these, that have so direct a bearing upon the history of the whole continent.