California Tree Carving Hints at Early Chumash Astronomy

By | February 9, 2010

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. Rick Bury

Though local lore held that the so-called “scorpion tree” had been the work of cowboys, paleontologist Rex Saint Onge immediately knew that the tree was carved by Indians when he stumbled upon it in the fall of 2006. Located in a shady grove atop the Santa Lucia Mountains in San Luis Obispo County, the centuries-old gnarled oak had the image of a six-legged, lizard-like being meticulously scrawled into its trunk, the nearly three-foot-tall beast topped with a rectangular crown and two large spheres. “I was really the first one to come across it who understood that it was a Chumash motif,” says Saint Onge, referring to the native people who painted similar designs on rock formations from San Luis Obispo south through Santa Barbara and into Malibu.

Amazingly, Saint Onge had just identified the West Coast’s only known Native American arborglyph, one long hidden behind private property signs. But the discoveries didn’t stop there. After spending more time at the site, Saint Onge realized that the carved crown and its relation to one of the spheres was strikingly similar to the way the constellation Ursa Major — which includes the Big Dipper — related to the position of Polaris, the North Star. “But as a paleontologist, I live my life looking down at the ground,” says Saint Onge, who runs an archaeological-consulting firm out of nearby Arroyo Grande. “I didn’t know much about astronomy at all.” (See who were the first Americans.)

He quickly learned that the constellation rotates around the North Star every 24 hours, that its placement during sunset could be used to tell the seasons and that the Chumash people also revered this astronomical relationship in their language and cosmology. “It’s the third largest constellation in the sky and they saw it every single night for tens of thousands of years,” says Saint Onge. “It was like the TV being stuck on the same channel playing the same show nonstop.” It became increasingly obvious to Saint Onge that the arborglyph and related cave paintings weren’t just the work of wild-eyed, drug-induced shamans — which has been a leading theory for decades — but that the ancient images were deliberate studies of the stars and served as integral components of the Chumash people’s annual calendar. “This gives us an insight into what the indigenous people of Central California were doing,” says Saint Onge, who published his theory last fall in the Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology. “It wasn’t just the daily simpleton tasks of hunter-gatherers. They were actually monitoring the stars.” …

via California Tree Carving Hints at Early Chumash Astronomy – TIME.

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