Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sharks and the Chumash
A sleek, mysterious, and occasionally vicious species, the shark has long stoked the fire of human fascination. In Polynesia, the shark god Kamohoali’i is credited with bringing volcanoes and surfing to Hawai‘i. In ancient Greece, the goddess Lamia (or “Lone Shark”) was given by Zeus the power to eat children at night. In Australia, the aborigines believe the movement of mystic sharks gave contours to the natural world. In West Africa, young men seek strength by dressing as hammerheads and dancing. And in the Aztec tradition, the Earth was laid upon the back of a shark-like beast named Cipactli who guaranteed fertile soil only with the sacrifice of blood and bodies.

So it may be surprising to learn that no such legends persist in the oral tradition of the Chumash, the people who’ve inhabited the Santa Barbara coastline (and far beyond) for the past few millennia. But that’s probably because the Chumash had a practical, rather than mythological, relationship with the shark: According to the archaeological record, sharks (and rays, their close relative) were the number two source of protein for coastal Chumash after sardines, at least for the past 1,000 or so years.

I did not know that this was part of the diet there. Interesting that it has no mythological significance, too.