Bay Nature magazineOctober-December 2003


Book Review: Before California

October 1, 2003

by Brian Fagan, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003, 288 pages, $24.95 (



In this new book archaeologist Brian Fagan succeeds in compiling various ele-ments of the history of California before European settlement, including archaeological discoveries, ecological changes, and anthropologic developments.

Fagan’s device of including us in his tales of California’s “prehistory” works well to connect readers with early Native Americans and bring the era and the people to life. His descriptions of a duck hunt in 11,000 b.c., of sightseeing along the Santa Barbara Channel in a.d. 1400, and of a shaman’s break-of-dawn ritual in a.d. 1200 combine archaeology and anthropology with dreamy storytelling. Instead of simply telling us that hunters used spears to hunt mammoths, Fagan writes, “Imagine trying to hunt a tule elk, let alone a mammoth, with nothing but your two legs, a stone-tipped wooden spear, and, perhaps, a throwing stick, or atlatl. The only way you can make a kill is by getting up close, so close that you can literally touch your prey.”

Before California addresses a wide range of topics including human travel and migration patterns, the availability of different food resources, changes in the ecology of the coast and inland regions, and detailed explorations of specific geographic regions throughout the state.

Aside from several overly-modest authorial asides that crop up between chapters, Fagan’s artful recreation of life in California, before it became California, provides readers with an approachable and meaningful introduction to this world.

About the Author