Chapter 1: Indigenous San Diego
5. What kind of culture did they have?
The Diegueño peoples were the only bands of indigenous peoples in California to trace their origins directly to the pueblo peoples in the greater Southwest. The Kumeyaay did not have corn, beans and squash agriculture as part of their heritage but they did know the use of the metate and mortar to grind grains and plants and the techniques of making coiled and sewn baskets. Climatic conditions, namely the absence of rain during the summer months, made the importation of corn agriculture difficult. In any case the success they had with local plants made such innovation unnecessary.
The consumption of acorns as a primary food of high nutritional value was unique to the indigenous peoples of Alta and Baja California. Although acorn trees grew on the lands of the peoples of the greater Southwest and northern Mexico, only the California bands developed the techniques that made them available for food. To make acorns edible, they had to be leached of the tannic acids. This was done by immersing the acorns in water or mud. The Kumeyaay used coiled baskets for the leaching while the Luiseño and Cahuilla used a sand basin or earthen depression. The invention of leaching processes was probably an original invention of the California Indians.
Despite the lack of maize agriculture, the Kumeyaay may have practiced a kind of ecological and plant management with regard to both acorn trees and grasses. Florence Shipek, a leading proponent of this view, has interviewed Kumeyaay elders who told of a tradition of interplanting grain grasses by periodic burnings of chaparral and broadcasting seeds of grain-yielding grasses, such as wild oats and green annuals. Thus the natives increased locations of food producing and medicinal plants. Interplanting insured the survival of some foods during drought. The Kumeyaay elders also reported planting cuttings from oak trees and hybridizing them to produce more acorns. The result was stands of oak trees near villages. The knowledge of these techniques were transmitted by the shamans from generation to generation. The Europeans, used to row type agriculture did not recognize the native grain fields as such, although one Spanish document recorded the harvesting of non-European grain grasses by the local Indians.
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