A Brief History of Los Cabos, Part I: The Mystery of the Pericúes
Learn more about the history of Cabo San Lucas and the Los Cabos area of Baja California Sur, Mexico.
The first human inhabitants of what is now Los Cabos were the Pericú, a hunting and gathering tribe whose territory not only included the southernmost part of the peninsula but also the East Cape and the islands closest to La Paz: Cerralvo, Espírtu Santo, Partida, and San José. They might also have occupied the land that is present-day La Paz, although it’s thought this area was constantly disputed between the Pericúes and their northern neighbors, the Guaycura.
Disputed is a word that comes up often in discussions of the Pericúes, perhaps not terribly surprising when you consider that they’ve been culturally and linguistically extinct for close to 250 years. There are no photos of full-blooded Pericúes, and the only descriptions of their way of life are from Europeans, most of whom considered them savages.
All that’s left of their long history is bones, artifacts, a handful of words, and questions.
The two greatest mysteries surrounding the Pericúes are at the heart of their story: Where did they come from? And when?
For nearly a century, the prevailing wisdom among academics has been that Native Americans aren’t really native. They came from what is now Russia, China, and Mongolia, and traversed a land bridge across the Bering Strait during the tail end of the last ice age— some 10,000 years ago—before subsequently dispersing throughout the Americas. This is known as the Beringian Migration theory.
The genetic differences found in some human remains, however, suggest that there may have been separate, perhaps earlier migrations. There is evidence that just doesn’t fit the standard narrative, in other words. This is certainly true of the Pericúes, who were taller and had significantly longer, narrower skulls (the scientific word for this is hyperdolichocephalic) than their Baja California peninsula brethren.
The oldest human remains found in the Americas to date are known as Peñon Woman, and they were discovered in Mexico City in 1959. Geoarchaeologist Dr. Silvia Gonzalez radiocarbon-dated Peñon Woman to over 12,750 years of age, and she believes the Pericúes have similar DNA and cranial morphology, as do remains found in Argentina, Brazil, and the U.S. state of Washington.
Gonzalez wasn’t the first to make the Lagoa Santa connection. The resemblance of remains in the two areas was noted in the 19th century by legendary Dutch anthropologist Herman Frederik Carel Ten Kate.
“In 1883,” writes Pablo L Martínez in Historia de Baja California, “the expert Ten Kate, on visiting Lower California, found in some caves of the Peninsula, as well as on an island off the coast, various craniums of Pericú Indians. Because of the format in which they were found, it appears that they are not very old; on the other hand, thse craniums present some of the more notable characteristics of those of Lagoa Santa. In the following year, when reporting this discovery Ten Kate stated he had come to the conclusion that there had existed in the southern part of Lower California an Indian people, the Pericú, who presented as very salient features certain resemblances to the Melanesians on the one hand, and on the other to the people of Lagoa Santa.
“In 1889 another anthropologist, the Frenchman Quatrefages de Breau, asserted that thanks to the discovery of Kate, it unquestionably followed ‘that some members of the dark race had come by sea to America from Melanesia.’
“The savant Paul Rivet, also French, in a work on the Pericúes which was published in 1909, shows by means of statistics a great number of measurements, graphic comparisons, tables and other illustrative material, not only a simple resemblance in the cranium, but a true blood relationship between the Pericúes, the race of Lagoa Santa and the Melanesians.”
Thus an alternative theory developed that the first Americans were originally from the South Pacific Rim and arrived in the Americas on some sort of floating water craft, perhaps as early as 25 to 35,000 years ago. This theory is supported by recent DNA tests, which suggest the Pericúes shared the same genetic lineage as Australian aborigines. It also explains why their language was distinct from that of their northern neighbors on the Baja California peninsula.
What do we know for sure about the Pericú? They were hunter gatherers—completely without agriculture—who lived off both land and sea based resources. They hunted deer and small game with bows and arrows, darts, and spear throwing atlatls; ate pitahaya fruit, and fished with harpoons using wooden rafts propelled by double-bladed paddles. And they fought, sometimes among themselves, but more often with the neighboring Guaycura.
Their language was originally thought to be related to that of the Guaycura. But this theory was largely based on geographic proximity, and the fact that the Guaycura’s northern neighbors, the Cochimí, referred to both groups as Edúes, or “people with a different language.” Later evidence has confirmed that the Pericúes had their own distinct tongue, although all that is left of it at this point is four words and 10 place names, including Añuití (San José del Cabo) and Yenekamú (Cabo San Lucas).
The Pericú did not build permanent dwellings, but rather relied on rock shelters and caves, or makeshift coverings of branches or reeds. In warmer weather, they slept on the ground around a communal campfire, with a rotating watch to keep the fire burning. The men, even after exposure to Europeans, chose to go naked, albeit with adornments like body painting and necklaces strung with berries, shells and burnt black pearls. The women, slightly more modest, wore grass skirts and animal skins.
The most evocative portraits we have of their way of life come from the descriptions and drawings of 18th century sailors. Captain Woodes Rogers, an English privateer, spent more than a month in the Capes Region waiting to attack the yearly Manila galleon. He was successful in this endeavor, capturing the booty-filled Señora de la Encarnación y Desengaño in 1709. He also took advantage of his time in the area to get to know the native inhabitants, who he largely disparaged in his book, A Cruising Voyage Round the World.
“The language of the natives was as unpleasant to us as their aspect, for it was very harsh and broad, and they pronounced it so much in the throat, as if their words had been ready to choke them…
“We saw nothing like European furniture or utensils among them. Their huts were very low and made of branches of trees and reeds, but not sufficiently covered to keep out rain. They had nothing like gardens or provisions around them. They subsisted chiefly on fish while we were here, which with the miserableness of their huts, that seemed only to be made for a time, made us conclude that they had no fixed habitation here, whatever they may have elsewhere, and that this (late autumn, early winter) was their fishing season. We saw no nets or hooks, but wooden instruments with which they strike the fish very dexterously, and dive to admiration. Some of our sailors told me they saw one of them dive with his instrument, and while he was underwater put up his striker with a fish on the point of it, which was taken off by another that watched him on a bark log. The reader may believe of this what he pleases, but I give it the more credit because I myself threw some rusty knives overboard on purpose to try those divers, who seldom missed catching a knife before it could sink three or four fathoms; which I took to be an extraordinary proof of their agility.
“Instead of bread they use a little black seed which they grind by hand and eat by handfuls. Some of our men thickened their broth with it and say it tastes somewhat like coffee. They have some roots that eat like yams, a sort of seed that grows in pods and taste like green peas, a berry that resembles those of ivy and being dried at the fire eats like parched peas. They have another like a large currant with a white tartish pulp, a stone and a kernel; this sort of fruit they seem to value much. They have also a fruit that grows on the prickle pear tree, tastes like gooseberries, and makes good sauce. They have many other trees and plants unknown to us…”
George Shelvocke provides a more sympathetic description in A Voyage Round the World by the Way of the Great South Sea. Like Rogers, Shelvocke was an English sea captain and privateer who visited Cabo San Lucas in hopes of capturing a Manila Galleon (he was unsuccessful), coming ashore in 1721.
He wrote: “The men are tall, straight and well made. Their limbs are large, their hair coarse and black and barely reaches down to their shoulders. The women are of a much smaller size, their hair is much longer than the men, and with it some of their faces are almost covered. Some of both sexes have good countenances, but we thought them to be of a much darker complexion than any of the Indians we has seen in the coasts of these seas, these being of a dark copper color…
“They seem to lead a careless life and to have everything in common among them, and can be supposed to search for nothing but the bare necessities of life, viz. meat and drink; which frees them from the anxieties which disturb the thoughts of nations more civilized and more refined. Their contentment made them honest for they never offered to pilfer or steal any of our tools and other utensils, although they might have been of great service to them…In a word they seem to pass their lives according to the notions we have of purest simplicity of the earliest ages of the world, before discord and contention were heard of among men; which must be owing to the great distance of their situation, and their being so much out of the reach of those who might have taught them other things.”
Shelvocke was much more impressed with the moral qualities of the Pericú than Jesuit missionaries, who founded the first missions in the area during the next decade. The Jesuits were intent on saving souls, and found the religion of the Pericúes–shamanistic, with supernatural cures and distinctive burial practices–antithetical to their own. They had their own creation myth, in which heaven and earth created by a god named Niparaja. And they were polygamous.
But very little is definitively known about the people who occupied present day Los Cabos for millennia. There is fragmentary evidence pieced together as a result of scientific discoveries and excavations, as well as anecdotal evidence from the writings of mariners and missionaries.
And the only real conclusion to be drawn is that they lived simply, very simply, almost certainly as a result of both the desert climate, and a minimal amount of tribal interchange due to geographical isolation.
They never underwent any meaningful evolution, or benefited from any significant leap due to sophisticated tools or technology. Nor did they get the chance. Some 40 to 50 years after the first permanent Spanish settlements in traditional Pericú territory, they were culturally extinct as a people.
Like most early Americans, their encounters with European colonizers were not at all pleasant, and in fact were marred from the outset by wars and diseases.
But that’s another story.