Sacred Texts  Native American  California  Index  Previous  Next 

Ethnography of the Cahuilla Indians, by A. L. Kroeber, [1908], at


Of next greatest abundance after basketry, among the Indians of the present day, are articles of stone, especially the metate and the mortar, and the corresponding mano or muller and pestle. These are still in frequent use. The metate is nothing but a flat stone, oval or somewhat rectangular in shape. It is made of granitic or metamorphic rock, not of a sandstone slab. It is very slightly hollowed. Some pieces show hollowing only in that part of their area which is actually rubbed in use. Occasionally a large lava metate on three legs, of the familiar Mexican type, is seen. These are always declared to have been obtained from Mexicans. A considerable number of such pieces must have been brought into California from Mexico. One has been obtained among the Yokuts north of Fresno river, and a fragment from the Emeryville Shellmound near Berkeley is in the University collections. It is curious that these heavy implements of the stone age should have been brought over a thousand miles by a civilized people in colonizing a new territory.

The rubber or mull stone is of much more varied shape than the metate. Sometimes it is oval in outline, thin and flat. Other pieces of the same length are narrower and twice as thick. Still others are much longer, of equal breadth and thickness, and well squared, so that they present the shape of a short length of dressed timber. Still others are natural shaped stones or boulders, the bottom of which has been rubbed flat.

p. 52

The mortar shows more variations than the metate. The deep wooden mortar of the desert, and the stone mortar with basketry rim of San Gorgonio pass, have been mentioned. The wooden mortar is specially adapted for the mesquite bean. It is made from a section of tree two feet or more long. The greater part of this log is sunk in the ground. The projecting portion presents the appearance of being a stump cut from a tree in situ. The mortar hole is quite deep, in some cases as much as a foot or more. A correspondingly long pestle is necessitated. This is about two feet in length, fairly well shaped, and quite slender. A similar wooden mesquite mortar is used by the Mohave, though block, cavity, and pestle are shorter than among the Cahuilla.

The stone mortar with basketry rim (Pl. 15) is used in the region where mesquite is unimportant or wanting. The block or boulder of stone is large compared with the size of the rather shallow cavity. The pestle used with this mortar (Pl. 8, left) is naturally much shorter than the pestle accompanying the deep mortar of the desert (Pl. 8, right) . It is also much more rudely shaped. In most cases it appears to be only a convenient cobble or boulder, one end of which has been dressed to fit the surface of the mortar cavity.

This rude type of pestle, practically unshaped except at the pounding end, or sometimes flattened on one side, is found also in the Sierra Nevada and perhaps in other parts of the state. Among the Yokuts and Miwok this is the only form of pestle for ordinary purposes. Cylindrically shaped pestles occur only in small sizes, for use with small portable stone mortars for crushing tobacco, medicine, or meat. Associated with the rough pestle among the Yokuts and Miwok, is the bedrock mortar, consisting of a hole in an exposed surface of granite. Most frequently a number of these holes, varying in depth, are found close together. Such assemblages, which have been a number of times described and illustrated, 17 are a conspicuous feature of past and present native life in the Sierra region. The basket mortar is unknown among these tribes, but is used by all the

p. 53

[paragraph continues] Indians of the Coast Range north of San Francisco—both those of the Central type of culture, such as the Pomo, and those of northwestern California. The basket mortar is used also in the northeastern part of the state. It is also found in the Chumash or Santa Barbara region, both mainland and island, as is evidenced by numerous stone mortars and slabs showing remains of asphalt at the rim and by an occasional piece preserved with the basketry still attached. In this region, however, the bowl-shaped mortar without basketry rim appears to have been used side by side with the composite form, for many of the mortars found are of such irregular shape at the top that a basket could never have been fastened to them. The basket set on a slab or shallow mortar, and the bedrock mortar, divide almost the whole of California between them, at least as regards the Indians of historic times and the present. This fact brings up the question of the origin and purpose of the portable stone mortars which are found in all sizes, in and on the ground, in all parts of the state. The Indians not only do not use these, but on being questioned frequently declare that they would not know how to, as the manipulations required in pounding acorns or seeds in these mortars would be quite different from those employed in the basket-rim or bedrock mortar. It can only be concluded that the ordinary bowl-shaped mortar found in such abundance all over California, belongs to a former period, and has in recent generations or centuries been generally replaced by the other forms described. The only region in California where the author has seen round or somewhat deep stone mortars in use is in San Diego county, where they are occasionally met with among the half-civilized Luiseño and Diegueño.

Next to the metate and muller, and mortar and pestle, the stone implement today most frequently encountered among the Cahuilla, though it is but little used, is the arrow-straightener. This consists of a rectangular or oval block of stone somewhat raised toward the middle, where a transverse groove divides its upper surface. It is in this groove that the arrow is placed to be straightened. The inner surface of the groove often shows high polish. Some arrow-straighteners show a low longitudinal ridge extending at right angles from one or both sides of the

p. 54

groove. According to the explanation obtained from an old man who still used his straighteners, this ridge serves to bend cane arrows at their joints, the joint being placed directly upon the ridge after the stone has been heated. Other stones show this longitudinal ridge only in rudimentary form, so low that it is doubtful whether it could have served any actual use. In still other pieces the ridge has entirely disappeared except for two narrow grooves or scratches that mark its place and can have had little other purpose than ornamentation or the following of custom. Occasionally also other scratched designs appear in the place of the ridge. The stone from which the arrow straightener is made is soft, usually soapstone or micaceous rock. Granite or similar stone does not appear to be used. The Cahuilla form of arrow-straightener is found among the other Mission Indians and among the Yokuts of central California. Like the rude pestle, the technique of basketry, and the carrying net with its companion the cap, it is therefore another link in the chain of technological similarities of culture between the San Joaquin valley and Southern California.


52:17 Holmes, Anthropological Studies in California, Rep. U. S. Nat. Mus. for 1900, 178, pl. 29, and Handbook of American Indians, Bull. 30 Bur. Am. Ethn., I, 944.

Next: Pottery