The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1974, Volume 20, Number 3

Book Reviews

David J. Weber, Book Review Editor

Patterns of Indian Burning in California: Ecology and Ethnohistory. By Henry T. Lewis. With an Introductory Article: “Some Explanations for the Rise of Cultural Complexity in Native California with Comments on Proto-Agriculture and Agriculture.” By Lowell John Bean and Harry W. Lawton. Ramona, Ca.: Ballena Press, 1973. Bibliography. Illustrations. Maps 148 pages. $6.50.

Reviewed by George Harwood Phillips, instructor of North American Indian History, U.C.L.A., author of the forthcoming Chiefs and Challengers: Indian Resistance and Cooperation in Southern California (University of California Press, Winter, 1975).

The California Indian has long suffered from a “bad press.” Because he was primarily a hunter and collector in aboriginal times, anthropologists have ranked him at the bottom in the hierarchy of social and cultural evolution. And because his numbers declined so drastically after white contact, historians have paid scant attention to his role in California history. It will be some time before the Indian is integrated into the general narrative of California history, but fortunately a few anthropologists and other scholars are beginning to have second and more positive thoughts about his so-called primitive aboriginal existence. The two articles in this first in a series of California anthropological papers are representative of this new trend.

Through the careful use of historical documents, oral traditions, and ethnographic accounts, Bean and Lawton make a strong case for classifying the Indians of California as semi-agricultural and placing them in the performative culture stage which is characterized by the incipient practice of agriculture. They challenge the old theories which state that abundant acorn and other wild plant foods provided the Indians with ample food sources and thereby acted as a “barrier” to the diffusion of agriculture west from the Colorado River and that maize, squash, and beans could not be grown in the winter-rain lands of California. By pointing out that some groups, such as the Cahuilla, Kamia, and Southern Diegueho all possessed corn or crop origin myths and crop words that were native to their languages, the authors suggest that at least some agriculture was being practiced in Southern California before the Spanish arrived. Furthermore, wild tobacco was also cultivated by many peoples, including the Wintu, Maidu, Miwok, and Yokuts. Diegueiios sometimes planted seeds from wild plants or transplanted wild plants to areas where they could be better tended. The Cahuilla regularly pruned the mesquite trees to improve growth and to provide easy access to the beans. According to the authors, the harvesting, tending, and transplanting of wild foods constitutes a proto-agricultural activity.

The article by Bean and Lawton nicely complements the one written by Lewis, which, as the title suggests, is concerned with a particular technique developed by the Indians of California-that of burning. This work, however, was not designed just for the specialist. It has relevance for those interested in ecology, conservation, and wildlife management, as well as interest in the California Indian. Lewis informs us that through selective burning, the Indian cleared land, controlled game, and improved seed production. Indian burning, furthermore, was an important factor in both the evolution and maintenance of the natural environment, for it cleared away much of the heavy overgrowth so prevalent today in our parks and forests. It is the overgrowth that makes present-day wildfires so destructive. Lewis speculates that without controlled Indian burning, much of California’s plant and wild life would probably have been destroyed prior to white contact. The Indian, it seems, while burning for his own special purposes, was also saving California for future generations. This is an important debt that all Californians owe the Indian.