Condors in Prehistoric California

After Steve’s post on possible late condor presence on the Northern Plains, I had to jump in with something on their importance to Native Americans in California. Condors featured in the religion of virtually every known tribe in the state, but I will talk mostly about the Chumash here in Southern California with which I am more familiar.

The pictograph above is of a condor painted on a rock face in the Santa Barbara area. You can see its red head and the feather elements and feet are rendered in white paint. The bird is painted on top of a petroglyph of a bear paw. Double magic?

One Chumash legend states that the condor was originally an all-white bird. The primeval condor was flying over the original Chumash village on Santa Cruz Island and was intrigued by the fire that he saw burning there. He flew too close to the fire and many of his feathers were singed, which accounts for why today’s bird is all black with only two white patches under its wings.

The condor was very important in Chumash ritual. As it is a carrion-eating bird, it was often linked in mourning activities and renewal ceremonies. Condors were often sacrificed and their skins and feathers were used for ceremonial paraphenalia such as capes or feather bands. Condor bones were carved and used as flutes or sucking tubes as seen below.
The use of these paraphenalia by shamans gave them special powers. The condor bone sucking tubes enabled a shaman to suck supernatural poisons out of a sick person and cure them. As condors have keen eyesight, taking on their familiar power enabled a shaman to find lost objects or missing people.

Condors and eagles were also associated with cosmic events. Either a condor or eagle was sacrified based on which celestial body was prominently visible during a particular ceremony. Eagles were used in ceremonies associated with the planet Venus and condors in those associated with Mars. The condor pictograph at the top of this post is located in a site identified as a winter solstice observatory.

Condors are not uncommon in Chumash rock art and some show figures with anthropomorphic traits that have been interpreted as humans in condor dance regalia – shamans taking on the power of their condor familiar. The photo below shows a natural sandstone outcrop that resembles a condor’s head located in the Carrizo Plain.
This has been identified by Chumash informants as a sacred place of power. Red pictographs can still be seen in the protected areas under an overhang. It is likely that the entire “head” was originally covered in red making it look even more like a condor’s head.

The post by Prairie Mary that Steve links below speculates that some of the old Blackfoot medicine bundles contained condor feathers. At the end of the Pleistocene when their range was continent-wide, it is interesting to speculate what role condors played in the rituals of the Paleoindian megafauna hunters.

Photo credit to California State Parks


  1. There’s no possibility that’s a teratorn right?

    Geez, seems like everything had a bigger range in the pleistocene.


  2. No possibility? Well, much as I would like to think so, condors are pretty exciting all by themselves. I’d think teratorns probably went in the first wave, as the bigger beasts passed into the maws of the Clovis bands– the “Black Hole” theory of Pleistocene extinction. While condors might have succeeded until the buffalo crashed.

    If there were any valid “teratorn” sightings- – REALLY big “thunderbirds”- – I’d love to hear. But most sound as though they are from the fringes of cryptozoology…

  3. cryptozoologists? Eh, I doubt that much of value will come from that. Too much tendency to “see” only big exciting things that couldn’t possibly still be around, like still extant teratorns, moa, plesiosaurs and the like.

    That’s not to say I don’t think there are still lots of exciting ungulates and rabbits yet to be formally discovered and described lurking in Vietnam.

    It would have been exciting to me if some part of the American continents lost legacy of fauna, a least as exciting as what’s in Africa today, were preserved there on that rock.

    Hmmm… so condors following the miles long herds of bison? You’re right, that’s pretty exciting and romantic right there.


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