A sleek, mysterious, and occasionally vicious species, the shark has long stoked the fire of human fascination. In Polynesia, the shark god Kamohoali’i is credited with bringing volcanoes and surfing to Hawai’i. In ancient Greece, the goddess Lamia (or “Lone Shark”) was given by Zeus the power to eat children at night. In Australia, the aborigines believe the movement of mystic sharks gave contours to the natural world. In West Africa, young men seek strength by dressing as hammerheads and dancing. And in the Aztec tradition, the Earth was laid upon the back of a shark-like beast named Cipactli who guaranteed fertile soil only with the sacrifice of blood and bodies.
So it may be surprising to learn that no such legends persist in the oral tradition of the Chumash, the people who’ve inhabited the Santa Barbara coastline (and far beyond) for the past few millennia. But that’s probably because the Chumash had a practical, rather than mythological, relationship with the shark: According to the archaeological record, sharks (and rays, their close relative) were the number two source of protein for coastal Chumash after sardines, at least for the past 1,000 or so years.
“Sharks were a very important part of the coastal Chumash diet,” said John Johnson, an anthropologist from the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History who has studied the “fauna assemblage” during archaeological digs on Santa Cruz Island, Rincon Point, and elsewhere. “But not all species-they had preferences.” Specifically, the coastal Chumash were eating the easier-to-catch near-shore species such as leopard shark, angel shark, soupfin shark, and swell shark. Bigger species, such as great whites and thresher, are occasionally found in old food scrap piles, but the quite plentiful blue shark are not, likely because they contain a lot of uric acid in their bodies, making them dangerous and disgusting to eat.
The Chumash also ate many species of rays, but seemed to prefer the shovelnose guitarfish, which is wide like a ray in its torso but lanky and finned like a shark on the tail. “There’s a lot of meat on them,” said Johnson, “and they’re also very easy to catch.” The guitarfish, like other small sharks and rays, lives part of its life in estuaries, so the Chumash would wait for tidal changes in such places as the Goleta slough and the Carpinteria lagoon, set up fishing stations or traps near the estuary’s mouth, and go to town on the escaping beasts. “They could even catch them with their bare hands,” said Johnson. “But I suspect they speared them mostly.”
After that, Johnson believes that they “probably prepared the fish in many different ways,” like we do today. Many likely smoked their shark, others might have just put it on a spit and thrown it over the fire, and some may have used a comal-the Chumash frying pan that’s made of a thin sheet of soapstone or steatite-to fry the fish. A visitor to a pre-colonial coastal village might have also stumbled upon the Chumash’s version of boullaibase, a seafood stew filled with shark, shellfish, sardines, and other fish species boiled over the fire in stone pots or cooked inside tightly woven baskets that are dropped in red hot rocks.
But no matter how the Chumash cooked their shark, one thing’s clear: the soldiers at the Santa Barbara Presidio were not fans. Although the soldiers were trading the Chumash for other seafood-sardines, tuna, and mackerel bones are prevalent in Presidio digs-“there are almost no sharks,” said Johnson. “What that is indicating is a cultural preference among the soldiers’ families and some kind of bias they have against eating sharks.” Interestingly, that bias against sharks remains prevalent in parts of northwest Mexico, where many of the soldiers were born.
But the Chumash weren’t just hooked on shark flesh. They also took advantage of the shark’s sharp and numerous teeth-including those of great whites and other big species-to cut and poke holes in animal hides, craft their arrows, and even wear as pendants. The shark’s rough skin became Chumash sandpaper, used for shaping and refining their woodwork as well as being an integral part of construction of their tomols, or plank canoes. In the book Tomol, Chumash elder Fernando Librado recalled from his youth, “When sharks were captured and skinned, pieces of their skins were allowed to dry and were later used for polishers. They used them like sandpaper to smooth all of their woodworking, especially for close fitting of the planks to each other.”
As a species comprised mostly of cartilage, which cannot withstand the test of archeological time, we’ll never know what the Chumash did-if anything-with the bulk of a shark’s soft skeleton. Some shark parts are harder and more bonelike, and the Chumash certainly revered these objects. Particularly, the centra of a shark’s vertebrae-a perfectly circular disc pierced by a tiny hole and surrounded by ridges-was fashioned into jewelry or talismans. The Chumash drilled wider holes in the centra and used natural tar seepage to adhere small shell beads to the edges, said Jan Timbrook, a Chumash material culture expert who also works at the Museum of Natural History, where many of these are on display.
Sharks are also at the heart of some unanswered questions about the Chumash. For instance, did the human femur with a shark painted on it found on Santa Cruz Island indicate an attack victim? Or is San Nicolas Island’s Cave of the Whales actually depicting sharks? At least there’s finally an answer of sorts for the bizarre relics uncovered in 1927 on Santa Cruz Island. Initially called “little monsters” and deemed to be ceremonial effigies by the archeologist who found them, no one could identify what these boney nodules were, so Timbrook and Johnson ran countless tests and asked every visiting researcher for their input.
Then one day, Timbrook told the museum’s “longest running detective story” at a conference, and two zooarchaeologists from the southeastern U.S. came forward with a similar mystery. They’d figured it out: The nodules were semi-ossified cartilage from the faces of sharp-nosed sharks, which have battering ram-like nose bones much like the Pacific salmon shark, which is occasionally found in the Santa Barbara Channel. The Chumash, just like scientists today, must have been mesmerized.
Despite this close, imagination-fueling connection, the Chumash mythology, at least as it’s recorded, has no place for sharks. According to Timbrook, that’s not so crazy. “Just because it’s a conspicuous, top-level predator doesn’t mean it would necessarily have a role in myths or legends,” she explained. “In Chumash mythology, there’s no mention of mountain lions either.” Or maybe, as many a waterman or hiker practices today, it’s just best not to speak of the human-eating beasts that surround you.