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Archaeology on the Peninsula

Souvenir hunters and academics have unearthed clues to the Palos Verdes Peninsula’s past.

Who lived on the Hill before red-tiled roofs and golf courses?

Lots of people, it turns out. Parts of the Palos Verdes Peninsula were inhabited up to 7,000 years ago—that’s before Stonehenge or the pyramids were built.

How do we know this? Mostly from accidental discoveries made in advance of building homes and schools. Bring in a backhoe and boom—all sorts of things get unearthed. Unfortunately, they don't always come with an explanation sheet.

Take a flat-topped rock with ancient drawings (see photo). In 1927, it was found in the hills above Portuguese Bend. Who carved it and what did it mean? No one knows.

One of the richest treasure troves found in Palos Verdes, archaeologically speaking, bordered Torrance on a bluff overlooking Malaga Cove. USC and the Southwest Museum excavated the area in 1936 and 1937 and found thousands of artifacts: arrowheads, mortars and pestles, scrapers and spoons made from abalone, beads and art objects, bone tools, shells and bones from food animals like mussels and birds.

Even back in '36, excavators heard of earlier souvenir hunters who had been collecting fish hooks, arrowheads, and other objects in the area for years. One man said he'd dug up a tule and reed boat, but threw it out because it seemed worthless to him.

Eventually, archaeologists used radiocarbon dating on the animal remains and found the Malaga Cove site had been inhabited by humans for at least 7,100 years. The early inhabitants found so much game, seafood, and wild plants in the area they never needed to develop farming.

The earliest people ate their shellfish raw, apparently; it’s only in the second-oldest layer that scientists found evidence of cooking fires and grinding stones. Also, graves and skeletons were found in the second level.

In a third level, archaeologists discovered cremated remains. The diet had changed again, and the bones of seal, otter, porpoise, deer, coyote, and rabbit were found on this level.

Most recently—between 1,000 and 235 years ago—a group called the Chowigna lived in in Malaga Cove and at other sites in Palos Verdes. They were part of the larger Tongva tribe. The Spanish called them “Gabrielinos,” because the Mission San Gabriel was the nearest outpost of Spanish Catholicism.

The Tongva might have settled in the Los Angeles basin many thousands of years ago, but centuries passed before a group resided in Palos Verders. The Tongva spoke a Shoshonean dialect, as did the Chowigna.

Chowigna villages stretched from the South Bay to Catalina Island. In Palos Verdes, a plaque at Malaga Cove Intermediate School acknowledges the Chowigna people who lived in Malaga Cove.

The biggest village in the area, though, was believed to be at Machado Lake, between Gaffey Street and the 110 freeway. It was called Suang Na. Archaeologist William J. Wallace, who taught at Cal State Long Beach, found at least 70 more inhabited sites on the Peninsula in the 1950s and 1960s, but did not excavate all of them.

The Tongva lived on Catalina Island too, and those folks traded with the mainland. Stearite (soapstone) from Catalina has been dug up in Palos Verdes, carved into ornaments and cooking pots. Some of those pots bore traces of jimson weed, a narcotic plant probably used in rituals, according to Wallace, who was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times in 1971.

We know the names of those villages and tribes because Baptismal records of the San Gabriel Mission listed the ‘home towns’ of the Indians baptized there. Early Europeans noted them as well. One source said San Pedro beach was called Sow-vingt-ha, for example, which sounds like both Chowigna and Suang Na.

The Spanish missions interrupted life for the Chowigna. At the Malaga Cove site, the most recent artifacts found nearest the surface were glass beads the Spanish brought. An estimated 150 people lived at the site in its last days, about 1775.

The Chowigna moved to the mission—willingly or not—and were exposed to European diseases that killed hundreds of people. Forced labor and other Spanish practices, like the breakup of family groups to live in men's and women's dormitories, disrupted and nearly destroyed the Tongva customs and culture.

Throughout generations, California passed from Spanish to Mexican to U.S. control. The Tongva were one of 18 tribes promised reservation land after California became a state, but those promises were not kept. Tribes were scattered; languages and culture were completely lost.

Today, several websites represent the Tongva-Gabrielino people. Descendants of clans are slowly piecing together what they can of their history, both before and after the Europeans arrived. They’re redefining what it means to be Tongva.

Toni Tramontin May 03, 2011 at 02:30 PM
Thank you for such an interesting article. It's great to read about the different periods of history of the South Bay. If someone was to find an artifact, where could you take it for identification~?
Vickey Kalambakal May 03, 2011 at 05:32 PM
Great question. It depends on what you find. For an arrowhead or single object, I think I call & visit a professor of Archaeology at CSULB--or any university. But if you find a lot of stuff--I'd leave it in place, then call those experts for advice. Anything that looks like human remains--call the coroner, and they will determine what to do. There are very strict laws about Native American graves and reburials.
Katharine Blossom Lowrie May 03, 2011 at 06:43 PM
Such a fascinating piece, Vickey. What inspired you to write it?
Vickey Kalambakal May 03, 2011 at 07:06 PM
I am a history geek. No other word for it. I saw the pictures while visiting the Local History room at the main PV library, so I went back there and combed the Internet to find out all I could on local pre-history. Thank you for the thumbs up!
Jim Jones May 04, 2011 at 03:45 AM
When the 125-acre Friendship Park, 80% of which lies in RPV, was last under threat of development in the mid-1990's, our Friends of Friendship Park resistance group (which was successful!) learned much from the Tongva/Gabrielino folks in the area. A major conclave and ceremonies were convened with the North American chief of all tribes in attendance from his Eastern Canada home. That dominant upper land-terrace had been a main communication point to the Channel Islands and shores nearby, and there were substantial artifacts and middens indicating inhabitation. Also, don't I recall that the bones of a mastodon were unearthed locally? JSJ
Vickey Kalambakal May 04, 2011 at 05:44 PM
That is great information, Jim--thanks. The only bell that rings when you mention mastadon is a 1920's find of tusk. I think schoolchildren spotted it embedded in a cliff-face after a rain, and I believe it sat at Malaga Cove's sales office for decades and now is in the Local History room at the library. I wonder if they ever found the rest of the skeleton...


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