Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

Ethnography of Castaic

By Jerry Reynolds
For The Signal

It is not known when prehistoric populations first occupied the Castaic area. Human remains have been dated in the general Los Angeles area as being 26,000 years old.
    The earliest inhabitants were big-game hunters and gatherers who exploited the large mammals of the Pleistocene such as the mammoth. They were displaced by the arrival of speakers of the Shoshonean language from the Great Plains around A.D. 500.
    It is not known what these people called themselves. The coastal Chumash, who were not on good terms with the inland tribes, referred to them as "Alliklik," which means "grunters." The more closely related Kitanemuk of the Antelope Valley called them "Tataviam," or "people of the sunny slopes." The Tataviam name is gradually superceding the term Alliklik in archaeological literature.
    "Castaic," by the way, is a corruption of the Chumash word "kashtuk," which means "our eyes." This was the name given by the Chumash to a small body of water just east of present-day Lebec. The Spanish called it "Castac," as did the Mexicans. With the arrival of the Americans, the spelling changed to "Castaic."
    The Tataviam newcomers settled into at least 20 semi-permanent villages of about 25 residents each. These villages were called rancherías. The largest were Piru (Piru-u-bit), Castaic Junction (Chagubit1), and Agua Dulce Springs, with more than 100 residents.
    The homes in these villages were made of bundles of grass tied to a framework of sycamore poles. They looked like upside-down baskets. A fire inside kept the Indians warm in winter with the smoke drifting through the walls. In summer, the sides were lifted to admit cooling breezes.
    In 1769, Fr. Juan Crespí wrote that the natives were very friendly, affectionate and evidently well-traveled. On the other hand, Fr. Garcés walked into the middle of a war in 1776 which he mediated. He described the people as being short, with fine features. The women wore a sort of apron of grass, while the men and children were dressed only in beads. In winter they would wrap up in blankets of rabbit skin or antelope pelts.
    There is evidence, however, that very sumptuous dress was worn for ritual occasions. In Bowers Cave, three miles northwest of Castaic Junction, magnificent headdresses and full-length capes of iridescent condor and flicker feathers were found.
    Pictographs — painted symbols — and petroglyphs — carved pictures — at scattered locations may have been executed by young males and females at initiation rites as they crossed over into adulthood. Most of those in the local area are so badly eroded or defaced that it is virtually impossible to devise a descriptive taxonomy.
    The pictographs and petroglyphs that are found in the Santa Clarita Valley seem to consist mainly of birds and beasts, zig-zags, looped lines, and what appear to be suns, moons and stars. Dominating the graphics are lizards and suns. The lizard motif was linked to the rain gods in may cultures, while the solar discs may make reference to the "people of the sunny slopes."
    The Castaic Reservoir collection2 consists of 70 items recovered from Elderberry Canyon by archaeologists from UCLA and CSUN in 1970. This project was funded by the California Department of Water Resources.
    Elderberry was visited by nomadic hunters as early as A.D. 1. The Tataviam occupied the site about A.D. 500 and used it as a base camp for their hunting and gathering. This information is gleaned from carbon-14 dating of ancient hearths.
    Small projectile points (arrowheads) indicate the killing of small game such as rodents, snakes and birds. No doubt deer, mountain sheep and antelope were also taken. Grizzly bears, which were common in the area, were obviously avoided at all costs. Burins were used for gouging bone or antler for splinters to make needles. Bladelets of stone, which are still sharp today, were used for the same functions as our modern-day pocketknives.
    The various mortars were used to grind oak acorns into a flour, which was the staple of the Tataviam diet. They also gathered yucca for the green stalk, squaw bush berries, and buckwheat. The buckwheat was made into an edible mush and brewed up as a tea to relieve headaches and stomach pains.
    A canoe-shaped cup and clamshell pendant, imported from Catalina Island, demonstrate extensive trade and travel.
    When Tataviams passed away, they were cremated and buried in rock-lined graves with schist bars erected as headstones. Also placed in the graves were their broken belongings.
    The last full-blooded Tataviam passed away on the Camulos Ranch near Piru in 1921.3 With him went a way of life that was in perfect harmony with nature. These ancient ones could have taught us a great deal about what we now call ecology, but we would not listen. Now, it may be too late.


    1. Commonly spelled Chaguayabit.
    2. The collection scattered when the Visitors Center at the Castaic Reservoir, where Reynolds worked, was closed. Some of it went to Pyramid Lake and some went to the SCV Historical Society. Most artifacts from the Elderberry Canyon dig are believed to reside at U.C. San Diego.
    3. Reynolds said 1916; however, the correct year is 1921, according to a death certificate on file with the Ventura County Clerk.

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