Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the masses of indigenous people living around the Santa Barbara Channel almost certainly outnumbered any other native population in what we today call California. And many archaeologists agree that the greatest density of these people, whom we collectively refer to as the Chumash, was likely around the Goleta Slough, which once extended throughout and beyond the borders of the Santa Barbara Airport and featured a large island near the center. Current estimates posit that humans lived around the slough for at least 10,000 years, and by the time of Spanish contact, there were four large villages, likely home to as many as 2,000 individuals, and numerous seasonal camps spread around the edges of the estuary.
These details are just the tip of the archaeological iceberg presented in Goleta Slough Prehistory: Insights Gained from a Vanishing Archaeological Record, which was published in 2020 by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and edited by longtime UCSB archaeologist Michael Glassow. “I’m hoping the book will be of use to future archaeologists who undertake projects in the Goleta Slough vicinity, as well as to city and county land-use planners who have a say in the destiny of the archaeological resources that remain,” said Glassow of the book’s importance.
Featuring hallmark research by renowned experts such as John Johnson, Lynn Gamble, Jon Erlandson, and Glassow himself, the book covers subsistence practices, political organization, historical accounts, and much more as examined in fairly intense archaeological surveys. Though academic in tone, there’s plenty of fascinating information for those curious about what the Goleta area was like centuries, even millennia ago, and clear evidence as to how the Chumash were able to thrive in the bountiful environment.
Though haphazard grave-robbing probably began soon after Spanish arrival — and only slightly more informed treasure-hunting expeditions carried on into the late 19th century — professional archaeological digs around the slough started to professionalize in the 20th century. Modern techniques didn’t really arise until the 1950s, which was a little too late to properly document the central island that the Chumash called Helo’ and the Spanish christened as Mescalitan. That important landmass was destroyed with the expansion of the airport in the 1940s, after only a few trained archaeologists, like Phil Orr, had examined the site. “They took a lot of the land from Mescalitan Island to fill in the Goleta Slough to make the runway,” said Glassow. “That destroyed a lot of the archaeology on the island.”
Infrastructure projects in the 1960s related to highways 101 and 217 led to major discoveries, which is about the time Glassow became interested in the slough while a grad student at UCLA. He started teaching at UCSB in 1969 and retired in 2009, but he continues to manage collections and conduct research.
The digs became more prominent in the 1970s with the passage of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, which mandated monitoring and protection of archaeological resources. “That really began a lot of the kinds of research that is reported in our volume,” said Glassow.
Why the Chumash settled at the slough is pretty obvious. “This was an estuary; it was open water,” said Glassow. “There was a lot of fishing done. They had a pretty gourmet diet of shellfish.” Cattails were also eaten, as were a variety of waterfowl, though their delicate bones don’t hold up well in the archaeological records.
Beyond what’s known now, Glassow doesn’t hold out much hope that there will be many more major discoveries from around the slough in the years to come. Almost every site is heavily damaged by development at this point, he explains in the book’s introduction, and any future projects are most likely to come from future building proposals. Even then, the goal would be to leave as much as possible in the earth.
“From the point of view of archaeologists, intact archaeological deposits should be preserved so that any investigation decades from now, taking advantage of refinements and innovations in archaeological method and technique, can derive information about prehistoric lifeways that cannot be imagined today,” he writes. “From the point of view of many members of the Chumash community, it is important to preserve sites because they are places that have acquired sacred value as homes of their ancestors.”
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