She lived on the coast of Baja California when the land was free of boundaries and borders, when nothing was named as we know it today. It was one vast untouched land that stretched out forever and it belonged to no one. Those who found her, called her Mujer de Humo, The Woman of Smoke. She was a holy woman and carried a sacred pipe. Her story instantly captured me and would not let me go until I sat down to write.
There is a science to her story of course. It started when ground breaking for new development uncovered an ancient burial site. The land was once a lovely marine terrace overlooking the Pacific, north of Ensenada. Ancient discoveries fascinate me and I often wonder what it would have been like to have lived so long ago. We might think of it as harsh, because today we have something to compare it to. This woman simply lived with the land the way it was without modern stresses we have today.
Terra Peninsular, a nonprofit organization based in Ensenada, shared two geological abstracts by Raúl Valadez and Danilo Drakic Ballivién, written between 2006 and 2008. These gave an introduction to the archaeological work they had been doing. Earth moving equipment had disturbed this burial site and by law the developer was required to cease all work for a period of time due to the historic significance. The research team had only a certain amount of time in which to gather as much information as possible. What they encountered surprised even them.
There were two marine terraces investigated. Living spaces, called “middens” were evident for food preparation and grinding seeds. Twenty-one metates were found, as well as hundreds of points, hammers, scrapers, knives and blades. A third area revealed discarded materials and remains of seals, sea otters, shark, whale, fish, deer, rabbits and birds. Canine skeletons were found in living spaces, suggesting that the early coyote-dog breed had domestic status.
The most exciting find were the six interments from three distinct time periods. Four females and two males were discovered ranging in ages from 20 to 40. A six year old child was one of the three earliest inhabitants. No one knows for sure when the first people came to live here, however the research team was able to date some of the remains back to 5300BP and a cranium was found to be of the Paleoindian group. These remains were almost completely fossilized. The first people were specialized hunters on land, but did not appear to be skilled in hunting marine life.
Two women were from the middle occupation in 4610. The archeologists found that since the very early times, “a sacred space has been considered an appropriate place to leave the dead in their eternal rest. Based on the discovery of distinct individuals and specific offerings for each, it was seen that the different groups used the defined sacred area for their burials.”
What a thrill it must have been to uncover Mujer de Humo, who was from the late occupation and interned 800 years ago. She was given the name Mother of Smoke because she was buried with her sacred pipe. She was 30 years old, laid gently to rest and not tightly bound in the traditional way. She was found in the area where ceremonies were performed. This was significant in archeological records as her remains lay very near a wooden pole. Kiliwa and Paipai groups performed ceremonies around a sacred pole. It is said that it helped them to connect with the spirits. Mujer de Humo was also buried with her two canine companions and a ceremonial stone tablet.
Mujer de Humo walked here over 800 years ago. Science discovered her, sifted through the burial site, carbon dated her remains, but they will never make her bones come alive. We will never hear her voice or her sacred songs, but one can imagine how she spent her days in this pristine environment.
She gazes at the sparkling ocean filled with abundant life and listens to the surf breaking against black volcanic rocks. The sky, a brilliant blue clarity, backdrops the flash of white as a seagull flies by. There can be no doubt that she swam in the sea to collect the tiny abalone with its delicate, sweet meat. The castoff shells are still found in abundance 800 years later. At night this woman gazed at the same full moon we know today. Without ambient light the blazing star- studded heaven was fully reflected. An open fire warmed her at night as she sat closely with friends, while they boasted about the catch of the day.
Near what is now modern Highway 1, Mujer de Humo walked through the coastal scrub; her two faithful canine companions bounding off to chase after a rabbit. She would know where to find the fragrant white sage for her ceremonial pipe; the sacred knowledge of its healing benefits were passed on to her by the elders. On her long silent walks she watched the vulture soaring on the thermals. The breeze softly spoke to her as she moved through great stands of agave. The agave was an important source of food and fiber for weaving nets and fishing lines. During the blooming season the agave’s tall shaft with a mass of yellow flowers at the top, exuded a sweet nectar. The people collected the aquamiel, drinking it with gusto. This juice fermented naturally into a drink called pulque.
Her people told stories that kept the ancestors alive. This oral tradition was the way they taught their children the ancient wisdom of survival in the pristine wilderness. Around a night fire with a few cups of pulque and laughter, romances were sure to develop. Mujer de Humo lived a rich and full life in her 30 years. She experienced being respected and loved by her people for her soothing gift of sacred smoke.
Danilo A. Drakíc Ballivián
Centro INAH Baja California
AMMVEPE Vol. 22 No. 6 Diciembre 2011
Permission for use of the picture of the pipe was given by a representative of the Mexican Government, Luis Delgado.