December 21, 2014

In recent years, evidence of Indian burials has been unearthed in Danville, around Mountain Mike’s Pizza on Hartz Avenue and at San Ramon Valley High School.

By Beverly Lane

People are very interested in these finds and want to know more about these people. What tribe did they belong to? How long ago did they live here?

From archaeological digs and carbon dating, we know that people lived in the San Ramon Valley for over 5000 years. Ethnohistorians believe people lived in the larger Bay Area for about 10,000 years. Discoveries in Alamo when the I680 freeway was excavated, in Danville by the Old Oak when the first office buildings were constructed, and in East County when the Contra Costa Water District built the Los Vaqueros dam have all yielded fascinating finds.

A basic reference book, The Handbook of North American Indians, California, provides excellent information about the Bay Area’s early settlers. One page shows drawings of artifacts found in Danville at CCo-229, the number for the specific archaeological site. Beads, abalone ornaments, charmstones, spear and arrow points, deer bone awls, pestles, mortars and bone whistles are shown. Examples of these items are currently on display at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley, donated to the museum by individuals over many years.

Recently Jim Cozens, who was San Ramon Valley High School principal from 1963-1975, brought two Indian artifacts to the museum. When he was building his house on Camino Encanto in 1954, his landscaper George Brazil got soil from an area between Hartz Avenue and San Ramon Creek, the location of today’s Mountain Mike’s Pizza. This is site CCo-229.

When Brazil poured the topsoil out, two stone artifacts were found. One was a nicely formed, broken pestle about four inches long. It would have been used to pound seeds or acorns in a stone mortar. Another was a charmstone, again nicely formed. While we don’t know the detailed purposes of these charmstones, they are said to be amulets and were worked by Indians in several different forms. Alfred Kroeber and other anthropologists believe the charmstones had sacred purposes, promote fertility, or provided good luck in hunting.

Three types of charmstones are on display at the museum, along with mortars, pestles, hammerheads, arrow straighteners, deer bone awls and various obsidian arrowheads.

Around 250 years ago several tribes lived in the San Ramon Valley. One tribe, called by the Spanish the Tatcan, lived in the drainage area of the San Ramon Creek watershed which flowed north. They belonged to the Bay Miwok linguistic group.

Other tribes, the Seunen and Souyen, lived in San Ramon and Dublin. Their territory included the Alamo, Tassajara and South San Ramon Creeks which flowed south into a vast marsh area. They spoke an Ohlone (also called Costanoan) language. The Bay Miwok and Ohlone linguistic areas appear to have met around today's Norris Canyon Road. Randy Milliken's research revealed marriages between members of these tribes, indicating they were probably friendly.

Indians of the Bay Area by Louis Choris, 1816

Each tribe had as many as three villages of 50 to 250 people, with possibly several hundred Indians living in the valley at western contact. They moved from a permanent settlement to other temporary camps during the year. At least seasonally, they probably lived on the Mount Diablo foothills, as evidenced by bedrock mortars found there.

Their lives revolved around the rhythms of the natural world, called the "seasonal rounds" Their diet was dependable and diverse and included seeds, acorns, fish, birds, insects, animals and root plants. In certain seasons, such as the autumn acorn-gathering, people worked from dawn to dusk; at other times of the year, life took a more measured pace.

Each October and November the Museum of the San Ramon Valley has a special Indian Life exhibit and books in the research library with extensive information about California Indians. Fourth graders come each morning to learn about the Indians who lived in this place.

Sources: Robert F. Heizer (ed.), California, Handbook of North American Indians (Vol. 8); Malcolm Margolin, The Ohlone Way; Randy Milliken, A Time of Little Choice The Distintegration of Tribal Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area 1769-1810; Alfred L. Kroeber, Handbook of the Indians of California; museum archives.

From Presenting the Past, Danville Weekly, Sept. 25, 2009