What will people hundreds of years from now think of American culture when they rummage through our trash? Especially in the absence of written records, a culture’s trash piles can shed much-needed light on a way of life that was mostly lost over the centuries. Anthropologists have sorted through the “trash” piles or middens of the Awaswas* people, who are native to Santa Cruz, California, to learn more about how they lived.
We Have Landfills, the Awaswas had Middens
Middens are the piles of discarded shells and bones left behind by the Awaswas (and other native peoples). From these piles, we know the ocean was an important source of food for the Awaswas, providing tasty fish, mollusks, marine mammals, and sea birds. We also know the types of tools used by Native American cultures and have a better understanding of their ways of life.
Present Day “Middens” of Plastic
You can no longer find middens on beaches in Santa Cruz, but you can certainly find trash from present day humans. Pieces of plastic, glass, paper bags, forgotten beach toys, and other remnants of human life are usually scattered across the beach. Unlike shells and bones, our trash can be detrimental to sea life, entangling birds and marine mammals or filling their bellies with indigestible plastics. Over the past seven years of beach clean-up events, volunteers with Save Our Shores have collected an average of 739 pounds of trash from Seabright Beach per year!
The Awaswas people had great respect for the ocean and relied on marine creatures for survival. We, too, rely heavily on the ocean, not only as a food source but also as a place of peace and tranquility where we can recharge after a long, stressful day. It is our responsibility to keep our beaches clean and to protect the marine ecosystem that residents have relied on for centuries.
If you plan on spending time on a beach this summer, pick up a piece of trash before you leave and deposit it in the garbage so it goes in our present-day middens (landfills), where it belongs.
So much has changed just in the past 100 years. How do you think this beach and creek will change in the next century? Will the creek still flood the beach? Will ocean levels rise? Will more native plant restoration take place, restoring the beach to a closer semblance of the ecosystem that existed here when the Awaswas walked these shores?
Land management practices over the past 500 years, beginning with the Awaswas and continuing with Santa Cruz residents today, have drastically changed this landscape. We’ve learned a lot from the people before us, but how this place looks and changes over the next century or more will depend on us and how we choose to interact with this landscape and actively manage it or not.
*The native peoples of the Santa Cruz area of California refer to the region as Cotoni and call themselves the Awaswas. Most folks today think of them as the “Ohlone” people, but this is a misnomer and not how they identify themselves. Today, the descendants of the area’s indigenous forebears who were “missionized” at Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista are organized as the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. The Cotoni-Awaswas nourished themselves from the sea and tidal zone, as well as harvesting, gathering, and taking game from the coastal uplands. Although not “agricultural” as we tend to think of it, California Indians thrived by actively managing the environment for productivity.
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