The Ancient Roots Of Malibu and Topanga Are Still Alive

Long before highways, film crews, and In ‘n Out, Los Angeles County was inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Native Americans. In what is now called Malibu and Topanga, the Chumash and the Tongva thrived for thousands of years, living off the land and sea.


The Chumash people once numbered in the tens of thousands and lived along the coast of California, from Malibu up to Paso Robles, a 7,000 square mile territory. Chumash means “seashell people,” and this tribe relied heavily on resources from the ocean. For nearly 4,000 years Malibu was inhabited by Chumash Indians. To put this in perspective; When the Jews were leaving Egypt, as chronicled in the Old Testament of the Bible, the Chumash were apparently just discovering the place we now call Malibu. They named the stretch of beach at the mouth of Malibu Creek “Humaliwo” or “the surf sounds loudly.” Humaliwo was an important center of Chumash life due to its proximity to the ocean and its lush greenery.


The Chumash lived in large domed houses, with up to 50 people at once. Their diet consisted mostly of fish and shellfish, and they even went whaling off the coast in their canoes, and used whale bones as tools to build their homes. Can you imagine whaling in a canoe?! The abundance of resources from the sea and land allowed the Chumash to thrive. They used large, shallow basin metates and handstones to grind small wild seeds and nuts for food. These metates can be found today along creek beds throughout Malibu and Topanga.


Ceremonies commonly marked significant seasons, and to display their dependency on the world around them. During the winter solstice, the shaman priests led several days of feasting and dancing in honor of the power of their father, the Sun. Each village had a shaman or astrologer, who charted the heavens and interpreted them to guide the people. The Chumash believed that the world was in a constant state of change, so decisions in the villages were made only after consulting the charts.

The Chumash are famous for their accomplishments in rock art, which can be seen today in places such as the Chumash Painted Cave. Located near Santa Barbara, it features hundreds of cave paintings in bright orange, yellow, and red, dating back to the 1600s. Take a road trip and discover the history of our region!

Chumash cave painting, Kern County, CA

Chumash cave painting, Kern County, CA


Just across the mountains in Topanga, a different tribe ruled. The Tongva people named this area, and they lived in a vast territory of what is now Los Angeles County. Many Southern California place names originate from the Tongva language, such as Azusa and Rancho Cucamonga.


Much like the Chumash, the Tongva were also fantastic boat builders, who explored the deep ocean to find food, and to trade on the Channel Islands. A Tongva canoe, or ti’at, was made of wooden planks sown together with tar or pine pitch and could hold as many as twelve people. The Tongva lived in sturdy, dome-like houses which were built to withstand earthquakes, a problem that plagued California even back then!

The Tongva relied on the ocean for their diet. They ate kelp, shark, shellfish, and clams which were in abundance in those times. They caught fish, seals, and sea lions with spears or harpoons and hunted small land animals with bow and arrows. Like the Chumash, they used metates to grind acorns and other seeds, then cooked them into cakes.

The Tongva believed in a religion named after their creator: Chingichnish. Artists designed sand portraits representing the universe in front of altars dedicated to the creator. Both women and men could be shamans, and they were the religious leaders and healers of the tribe. They healed the sick and were believed to be able to change their shape from human to animal.



Many historical sites for the Tongva can be found throughout the area. These include the Kuruvungna natural springs in West Los Angeles, the Puvungna sacred site on the campus of Cal State Long Beach, and the Tongva burial grounds located in Playa Vista. There are also areas that feature recreations of traditional Tongva huts and canoes, so you can see what they lived like for yourself!



Unfortunately, both these tribes were decimated by the influx of the Spanish and the Mission system. By 1831, the population was just 12 percent of what it had been 50 years prior. Today, both tribes have a strong system of diverse groups that support and advocate for Tongva and Chumash cultural heritage, including language classes and canoe trips.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Native Americans of Malibu and Topanga, you can attend the annual Chumash Powwow! Featuring traditional foods, crafts, dancing, and music, the event is held April 8, 2017 at Malibu Bluffs Park, and more information can be found on the Malibu website


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Next time you take a look at some of the interesting names of places in Los Angeles, or take a walk in nature, remember who once lived on this land.