Notes from the Field | Landscapes and Languages: The shaping of California

Linguistic diversity of California
California’s ecological diversity led to linguistic diversity among its earliest inhabitants. Map credit: Brian Codding, University of Utah

The diversity of the California landscape has contributed to the diversity of all of its inhabitants, human and otherwise. It has also shaped and been shaped by the diversity of our human goals, desires, and cultures over time.

When I look out across the bay I am often struck by how our cities and infrastructure interact with the physical landscape.  We have engineered nature to create a static environment, taking human development outside the confines of our complex inter-connected habitat.  It’s hard to imagine the bay without the bridges or city skylines, but there was a time when the birds outnumbered humans 10 to 1, blackening the sky as they flew overhead. Grizzly bears, elk, coyotes, badger, gray fox, Tule elk, bobcat, and mountain lions were more common than smart cars. Instead of freeways and bridges,  a morning commute involved traversing streams, creeks, and rivers, which flowed uninterrupted, fanning out into the bay through a vast network of fresh and salt marshes.

The Bay Area was and still is an incredibly dynamic and diverse set of interdependent ecosystems.  The San Francisco Bay, with its immense safe harbor and 40% of California’s fresh water pulsing in from the delta, is one of the most productive landscapes on the face of the planet.

This diversity is echoed throughout the state. Nowhere in the world can one find such diverse and unique topography than in California.  From the high glaciated peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the parched Mojave desert, the volcanic history of Shasta and Lassen to the prairies and oak woodlands spread across the central valley, to the beaches of the rugged coastline, California seems to have it all.

A recent paper published by Brian Codding of the University of Utah and Terry Jones of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo took a look at how the California landscape was responsible for creating diverse cultures among the first human inhabitants.

8,000 years ago, the Ohlone and Coast Miwok people began to take advantage of the abundant resources the bay had to offer. They lived together in very loose groups, held together by language and the topography of the country much more than by any political or social organization; distinct tribes, as they occur in many other parts of America, did not really exist. The small village was the most common unit of organization among these people.

According to Jones and Codding,  the ecological diversity of the region created distinct languages and cultures among the people who inhabited the land. The indigenous people of California have spoken over 300 dialects of one hundred distinct languages. These loosely defined groups migrated throughout California and colonized the state, first settling the richest ecosystems, particularly along the Pacific coastline.

Human migration to California is still shaped by our relationship to the land. California is a bastion of diversity and creativity due in large part to the health and vitality of the natural world that surrounds us. The way in which we use these abundant resources here defines who we are as a people.  Looking at the history of the indigenous people who came before can help us understand our place in the landscape–both the opportunities we have to protect it and the risks we pose.

It’s up to us the protect and restore the natural wonders in our own backyard. One way to do that is to have a hand in directly restoring vital salt marsh habitat, for ourselves, wildlife, and future generations.