Archaeologists believe some of the Bay Area's first inhabitants lived in houses that were framed with wood, perhaps willow, and thatched with tule or other plant materials. (Maureen Self/Courtesy of the California Institute for Community, Art & Nature)
Ever since he was a kid, Héctor Pérez has wondered about the first inhabitants of the Bay Area.
"It's been like a tickle in the back of my mind since a teacher of mine in middle school taught us about the Bering Strait," Pérez says, referring to the land bridge that let people journey from Asia into Alaska during the ice age, when sea levels were lower.
"I have a clear memory of the old social studies books with pictures of people with animal furs fighting the wind," says Pérez, now an English teacher at Mountain View High School. He wants to know: "Who were the first inhabitants of this region? And what was it like for them? What happened to them? Are there any descendants left?"
The answer to the last question is yes, although not everyone likes the term "descendants." "Descendants is something that puts us to be a fragment of what we once were," says Vincent Medina, an Ohlone activist and chef living in the East Bay. "We prefer to call ourselves the Ohlone people of today, and there's many Ohlone people that are alive today."
Most of what we now know as the Bay Area was Ohlone territory, from Vallejo down to Monterey, including San Francisco and the Peninsula. "Now within that, there's at least 54 independent nations," Medina says. While these groups share some things in common, they speak many different languages; Medina speaks one called Chochenyo.
Other groups around the Bay Area include the Miwok — Coast Miwok people along the shoreline of Marin County, and Bay and Plains Miwok further up the Delta — as well as Patwin and Wappo.
As for where the term Ohlone comes from, Medina says there are a few explanations:
"Sometimes people will say that it comes from the name of one of those smaller nations I was describing on the San Francisco Peninsula, but we have another explanation for that in our family here in the East Bay. We believe it comes from the Miwok term which means 'people of the west.' "
How long have people lived in the Bay Area, and what was life like then?
The record is spotty, but humans were definitely here before the last ice age ended around 11,700 years ago — and back then the place was not a windswept tundra. The weather was mild, and the low sea level meant the coast was miles further west than today. What’s now the bay was more like a lush river valley.
The first people we know of living here probably enjoyed abundant seafood, says Kent Lightfoot, an anthropology professor at UC Berkeley with expertise in California archaeology.
"The earliest people we have really good archaeological records of," Lightfoot says, "were maritime peoples, seafaring peoples who had boats and who had come down the coast."
It's possible another wave of migrants came in to hunt the mammoths and mastodons that roamed the Bay Area around this time. While Lightfoot says there's not great evidence of this, it wouldn't surprise him.
Over the next several thousand years, sea levels rose. The ice age megafauna vanished, but a tremendous array of wildlife remained — including the now-extinct California grizzly bear.
During this period, the people here came to use bows and arrows rather than spears to hunt animals like elk. And they learned to process acorns into a kind of porridge. They also used grass-like tule reeds for everything from building structures and boats to crafting baskets and nets for fish.
"By the time the first Europeans came, the bay had about 400 shellmounds around it. These shellmounds were accumulations of earth, of shells, of ashes from fires, of refuse and burials," Margolin says. Some were around 300 feet in diameter and three stories high and would've taken generations to build up — long enough for their use to gradually shift with time. Perhaps some generations used them as ritual places, others for dwelling, he says.
Today, many shellmounds have become the sites of shopping centers and parking lots. And there are ongoing legal disputes and protests over this type of development. Perhaps the best surviving example of a shellmound is in Coyote Hills Regional Park, but that one is only open to the public on certain occasions.
What happened to the people here?
It's a sad but familiar story: Waves of colonizers came to the Bay Area and killed nearly all the native people living here. Survivors had to give up their land and their way of life.
Margolin calls the genocide "an attempt to erase people," saying, "I think Europeans had no use for Indians. I think they had a sense of them as inferior beings. What they saw were people that didn't have the right clothes, that didn't have the right manners. They didn't have the right religion."
The devastation came in three waves, starting about 250 years ago with the Spanish.
"The conquest was as cruel as it could be. Indians were drawn into the missions and many of them died either from disease or were killed outright," Margolin says.
Then, during the era of Mexican control that followed, native people were cut loose from the missions. With nowhere to return to, many were forced to work on ranches.
"Our family experienced a lot of hardships that came with colonization — too many hardships to ever really list," Vincent Medina says.
Through it all, Indigenous people like Medina’s great-grandmother quietly preserved and passed on the traditions of their ancestors.
"When not everything could be carried on, one way that our family found to keep these things alive was through documenting them," Medina said. His great-grandmother and other elders wrote thousands of pages on history, language, religion and foods.
"My great-grandmother survived that time," Medina said. She got through it, and she still kept our culture close, passing on as much as she could to everybody in our family around her. And through those efforts that's how so many of us, including myself, grew up empowered with our culture."
Medina says at one point not a single person he knew spoke Chochenyo. But over the past several years, he and others have worked to resuscitate the language, using the documentation their elders left behind as a guide. Now a whole community is conversant.
“That shows healing right there in action,” Medina says. “That shows how we can be able to have things back again that we might have not had a short time ago, but that we were always meant to have.”
He's one person among many working to revive traditional dance, basketry and even making boats of tule reeds. He sees this as carrying forward a story that began a very, very long time ago.
"Knowing that we’re Indigenous here, that we were created here, it gives us that responsibility and that obligation to keep these teachings close with a lot of integrity and a lot of deep care and love," Medina says.
Get our monthly newsletter featuring listener questions not answered on the Bay Curious podcast.