The earliest well documented prehistoric sites in the southern California region show evidence of human presence dating back over 8,000 – 9,000 years ago in the San Diego region. Groups from the early Holocene Epoch, the Early Prehistoric Period, or Paleoindian period, have been referred to locally as the San Dieguito Complex or Tradition (Rogers 1966, Pignolio 2010). People of the San Dieguito Complex were previously thought to have been almost exclusively ‘big game hunters’ (Pourade 1966) and highly mobile in order to follow large mammals. However, more recent evidence suggests that they were also gatherers and, along the coast, exploiters of marine resources (Gallegos 1992). The San Dieguito Complex is generally divided into four “aspects” (major zones of concentration): the Western, Central, Southwestern, and Southeastern Aspects with the San Diego coastal region falling into the Western Aspect (Rogers 1966). The first documented coastal site (i.e. Harris site) in the San Diego region was found along the San Dieguito River, which is located just north of the Los Peñasquitos Watershed.

The best prophet of the future is the past.

– Lord Byron


During the Early Archaic Period, it is believed that the Native Americans had a generalized economy that focused on hunting and gathering (Pignolio 2010) with coastal southern California economies remaining largely based on wild resource use until European contact (Willey and Phillips 1958). Sites dated between approximately 8,000 and 1,500 years before present (BP or prior to 1950) indicate increased use of groundstone artifacts and dart points, along with a mixed core-based tool assemblage that identify a range of adaptions to a more diversified set of plant and animal resources including marine invertebrates in coastal areas (Pignolio 2010). Around 6,000 years BP the lagoons of northern San Diego County supported large populations (Gallegos and Kyle 1988; Pigniolo et al. 1993). However, there appears to be a decline in the numbers of sites in northern San Diego County from around 3,000 to 1,500 years BP, which has been attributed to the siltation of the lagoons and the depletion of lagoon resources including shellfish (Gallegos 1992:206, 213; Gallegos and Kyle 1988). The end of the Early Period in present-day San Diego County has been estimated to be around 1,300 years BP (Gallegos 1992:212-213).


The Late Prehistoric Period (also known as the Late Archaic or Yuman Period) lasted from 1,300 years BP up to European contact. This period has been distinguished from earlier periods by the appearance of small projectile points, ceramics, the introduction of bow and arrow, as well as the practice of cremating the dead (Christenson 1992:217; Gallegos and Kyle 1988). Some researchers believe that the drying up of the large inland lakes (Lake Cahuilla and others) instigated or contributed to the migration of peoples from the eastern deserts to the western portion of San Diego County (e.g., Pourade 1966:8). Yuman Period sites have been found mainly in the inland portion of the county, with only two percent being located within the coastal strip (Christenson 1992:220). These results may be in part skewed due to the loss of site data because of coastal development prior to the instigation of standard site recording practices (Christenson 1992:220 221). Although Christenson (1992:221, 225-226) concludes that Late Prehistoric people of present-day western San Diego County used a wide variety of environmental settings for settlement and subsistence, maritime resources never became an emphasis, as reported for other groups living along coastal areas of California. However, proof of shoreline and offshore fishing was observed in bone assemblages of fish found in four Early Period sites located near Los Peñasquitos Lagoon that span a period from approximately 7000 to 2800 years BP (Noah 1998).

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, including Los Peñasquitos Lagoon, is within the ethnographic territory of the Kumeyaay, formerly referred to as Diegueño, who are direct descendants of the early Yuman hunter-gatherers. Their territory encompassed a large diverse environment that included marine, foothill, mountain, and desert resource zones. The Kumeyaay were mainly hunters and gatherers, making seasonal rounds to take advantage of various resources. However, they had also developed horticultural/agricultural techniques including burning, seed broadcasting, transplanting, and planting (Bean and Lawton 1973; Gee 1972; Luomala 1978; Shipek 1982). Acorns were the single most important food source used by the Kumeyaay and villages were usually located near water sources to facilitate the leaching of tannic acid out of the acorn meal (Pignolio 2010). Seeds from grasses, manzanita, sage, sunflowers, lemonade berry, chia, and other plants were also used along with various wild greens and fruits. Deer, small game, and birds were hunted and fish and marine resources were used as food sources. Hunting implements used by the Kumeyaay included bow and arrow, curved throwing sticks, nets, snares, and fishhooks made of shell or bone (Pignolio 2010).

The Kumeyaay were organized into autonomous bands with a hereditary (patrilineal) clan chief as well as at least one assistant chief (Luomala 1978:597). Each band had a central primary village and a number of outlier homesteads located at small water sources, springs, or at the mouths of secondary creeks (Shipek 1982). They also claimed prescribed territories, but did not own resources except for some minor plants and eagle aeries (Luomala 1976, Spier 1923).


Located within modern-day Sorrento Valley and dating back to 1295 years BP, the Kumeyaay village of Ystagua spans the Late Prehistoric Period up to European Contact. Father Juan Crespí and Miguel Costansó captured early encounters with the Kumeyaay at Ystagua on July 15, 1769 during a Spanish exploration party led by Don Gaspár de Portolá (Carrico 1977). Crespí described the encounter as being friendly and recorded one of the first observations of clay pottery, leading many anthropologists to argue that Native American’s manufacturing of pottery occurred prior to Spanish contact (Ibid). Archaeological excavations conducted at Ystagua have yielded extensive grinding technology and faunal collections that include nineteen fish species dominated by Pacific mackerel and sheepshead (Noah 1998). Other pelagic fish found at this site included albacore, skipjack, bonito, yellowtail, and barracuda, indicating that residents of Ystagua ventured offshore to kelp beds off of Del Mar and, potentially, further out into open coastal waters (Ibid).

Archaeological evidence indicates that many of the late prehistoric villages along the San Diego coastline moved inland as early as two thousand years before Portolá’s arrival. This large migration away from the coastline was most likely due to a drastic decrease in the quantity of shellfish that provided a major food source (Warren 1964). However, Ystagua appears to have been an exception, most likely due to its location near Los Peñasquitos Lagoon and its three sub-watersheds that provided the Kumeyaay at Ystagua opportunities for both shellfish harvesting along the coast and hunting/gathering opportunities in the nearby coastal canyons (Carrico 1977). Furthermore, natural springs located in Los Peñasquitos Canyon most likely contributed to stability by providing a source of freshwater for both the Kumeyaay and the large mammals they hunted.


Recorded sites near Los Peñasquitos Lagoon indicate that both the Lagoon and its nearshore environs played a role in the Native American diet consisting, in part, of marine faunal species. SDI-1103 (6310-5020 years BP) is located along the inland edge of Los Peñasquitos Lagoon. Faunal assemblages at all the recorded sites indicate a diet that consisted of lagoonal shell species, elasmobranchs (rays and sharks) found in shallow sandy or muddy-bottom areas, and fish species typical of kelp beds, rocky areas, and open waters (Ibid).

It should be noted that the success of harvesting marine resources around Los Peñasquitos Lagoon was most likely shaped, in part, by the transformation of the Lagoon from a deep embayment to brackish marsh and, eventually, to a salt marsh. During the end of a glaciation period and subsequent rise in sea level, Los Peñasquitos Lagoon was transformed into deep-water embayment in 6000 years BP with a rocky coast along the beach (Inman 1983). Around 4000 years BP, sea-level rise slowed and sediment input from the coastal watersheds within the Oceanside Littoral Cell transformed the rocky coastline near Los Peñasquitos Lagoon into sandy beaches (Masters 2005, Masters and Gallegos 1997). As a result, the primary source of coastline fauna available for Native Americans shifted from mollusks to sandy beach species (Ibid). As sea levels stabilized, episodic events associated with El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) continued to facilitate sedimentation within Los Peñasquitos Lagoon, transforming the Lagoon into a brackish marsh by 3600 years BP and salt marsh by 2800 years BP (Cole and Wahl 2000).