A Tree Carving in California: Ancient Astronomers?
By Matt Kettmann Tuesday, Feb. 09, 2010
The counterclockwise rotation of stars around Polaris as viewed from
Painted Rock in Carrizo Plain, Calif. The glyph on the "scorpion tree"
appears to portray Ursa Major in relation to Polaris
Though local lore held that the so-called "scorpion tree" had been the
work of cowboys, paleontologist Rex Saint Onge immediately knew that
the tree was carved by Indians when he stumbled upon it in the fall of
2006. Located in a shady grove atop the Santa Lucia Mountains in San
Luis Obispo County, the centuries-old gnarled oak had the image of a
six-legged, lizard-like being meticulously scrawled into its trunk,
the nearly three-foot-tall beast topped with a rectangular crown and
two large spheres. "I was really the first one to come across it who
understood that it was a Chumash motif," says Saint Onge, referring to
the native people who painted similar designs on rock formations from
San Luis Obispo south through Santa Barbara and into Malibu.
Amazingly, Saint Onge had just identified the West Coast's only known
Native American arborglyph, one long hidden behind private property
signs. But the discoveries didn't stop there. After spending more time
at the site, Saint Onge realized that the carved crown and its
relation to one of the spheres was strikingly similar to the way the
constellation Ursa Major — which includes the Big Dipper — related to
the position of Polaris, the North Star. "But as a paleontologist, I
live my life looking down at the ground," says Saint Onge, who runs an
archaeological-consulting firm out of nearby Arroyo Grande. "I didn't
know much about astronomy at all."
He quickly learned that the constellation rotates around the North
Star every 24 hours, that its placement during sunset could be used to
tell the seasons and that the Chumash people also revered this
astronomical relationship in their language and cosmology. "It's the
third largest constellation in the sky and they saw it every single
night for tens of thousands of years," says Saint Onge. "It was like
the TV being stuck on the same channel playing the same show nonstop."
It became increasingly obvious to Saint Onge that the arborglyph and
related cave paintings weren't just the work of wild-eyed, drug-
induced shamans — which has been a leading theory for decades — but
that the ancient images were deliberate studies of the stars and
served as integral components of the Chumash people's annual calendar.
"This gives us an insight into what the indigenous people of Central
California were doing," says Saint Onge, who published his theory last
fall in the Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology. "It
wasn't just the daily simpleton tasks of hunter-gatherers. They were
actually monitoring the stars."
Saint Onge isn't the first to speculate that Chumash paintings might
have astronomical implications. The anthropologist Travis Hudson did
so back in the 1970s with his book Crystals in the Sky, which combined
his observations of rock art with the cultural data recorded nearly a
century earlier by legendary ethnographer John P. Harrington. But when
others went into the field to check out Hudson's claims, "much of it
was pretty unconvincing," explains anthropologist John Johnson of the
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. "That's what caused people to
get skeptical about archaeoastronomical connections."
That reluctance ruled for three decades until Saint Onge presented his
findings to Johnson, a bookish researcher who isn't one to rock the
academic boat with unsubstantiated suggestions. But Johnson was so
impressed that he co-authored the journal article and is now quite
open to the idea that the rock art he's studied his whole adult life
might have something to say about the stars. "Whether we're right or
not, I don't know, but we keep finding things that strengthen the
idea," says Johnson. "And if we keep finding ethnographic support for
it, I feel we're on safer ground."
Neither man knows how long ago the tree was carved — though they
speculate that a Chumash family that lived on a nearby hillside until
they all died in the 1918 flu epidemic may have tended to the
arborglyph as the bark and lichen grew back — but they're just
relieved that Saint Onge was able to find it at all. "The upkeep of
the motif itself has gone by the wayside and it's not long for the
world," says Saint Onge, explaining that carpenter ants are attacking
the limbs, "so I think it was a good thing that we came across it when
Johnson and Saint Onge are most satisfied that the arborglyph is
confirming what they've long known: that, despite centuries of being
classified by historians as merely hunter-gatherers, the Chumash lived
in a very complex and sophisticated society. Those sentiments are
echoed loudly by Joe Talaugon, a 79-year-old Chumash elder who visited
the site early on with Saint Onge and is also a co-author of the
study. Although he says that the Chumash people's traditions were
"stripped" by the Spanish mission system that ruled California 200
years ago, Talaugon believes that the arborglyph and its implications
empower the ongoing cultural renaissance among those of Chumash
descent. In recent years, Chumash revivalists have built and paddled
plank canoes into the sea, developed a linguistic textbook and learned
to perform the music and dancing of yesteryear.
"Chumash people are realizing that they do have a connection to their
ancestors, so they want to renew that," says Talaugon, a retired
construction worker who founded the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in
northern Santa Barbara County to rejuvenate the Chumash culture and
spiritual beliefs. "It's important to me as an elder that we tell the
truth about our history," says Talaugon. "The tree carving opened up a
lot of avenues to do so."