Native Village
Youth and Education news
 APRIL 1, 2010 Volume 1

California Tree Carving Hints at Early Chumash Astronomy
By MATT KETTMANN Matt Kettmann

Condensed by Native Village

The counterclockwise rotation of stars around Polaris as viewed from Painted Rock in Carrizo Plain, Calif. The glyph on the "scorpion tree" appears to portray Ursa Major in relation to Polaris

California:  It's called "the scorpion tree" by locals. But the centuries-old gnarled oak in San Luis Obispo County is more than that. It's the West Coast's only known Native American Arborglyph.

In 2006, when Rex Saint Onge saw its 3 foot ancient carving -- a six-legged, lizard-like beast topped with a crown and two large spheres -- he knew what it was.

"I was really the first one to come across it who understood that it was a Chumash motif," says Saint Onge who had seen similar Chumash designs painted on rock formations from San Luis Obispo into Malibu.

The discoveries didn't stop there. Saint Onge later realized that the positions of the crown and one sphere was like Ursa Major's position to Polaris (the North Star.) But he didn't understand what that meant.

'As a paleontologist, I live my life looking down at the ground," he said. "I didn't know much about astronomy at all. "

In his follow-up research, Rex learned:

Ursa Major rotates around the North Star every 24 hours.
Its position during sunset was used to tell the seasons.
The Chumash honored this constellation and star in both language and culture

"It's the third largest constellation in the sky, and they saw it every single night for tens of thousands of years," he said. "It was like the TV being stuck on the same channel playing the same show nonstop."

Saint Onge says the arborglyph and rock paintings partly served as Chumash calendars. "This gives us an insight into what the indigenous people of Central California were doing," he said. "It wasn't just the daily ... tasks of hunter-gatherers. They were actually monitoring the stars."

No one knows the Arborglyph's age. It's believed a Chumash family may have cared for it until they died in the 1918 flu epidemic. It's now in poor condition. Saint Onge is grateful that he found it at all.

"The upkeep of the motif itself has gone by the wayside and it's not long for the world," he said, "so I think it was a good thing that we came across it when we did."

Joe Talaugon, a 79-year-old Chumash elder, visited the site with Saint Onge. He said that for 200 years, Chumash traditions were "stripped" by the Spanish mission systems. 
This arborglyph is important to the Chumash people who are now returning to their culture.

"Chumash people are realizing that they do have a connection to their ancestors, so they want to renew that," Talagon said. "It's important to me as an elder that we tell the truth about our history.  The tree carving opened up a lot of avenues to do so."

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