The sun was just one of many Costanoan deities that received offerings such as tobacco smoke, as well as seeds, tobacco, shell beads, and feathers. Shamans interpreted their dreams in religious terms, which were often used as a guide for future actions. Shamans also controlled weather and cured disease by sucking out offending disease objects and through the use of herbs. They could also bestow luck in economic pursuits. Much of their power depended on the performance of dances and ceremonies, including the Medicine Man's Dance, Devil's Dance, Coyote Dance, Dove Dance, and Puberty Dance.
Roughly fifty small tribes, each headed by a chief and a council of elders, spoke Costanoan languages. Each tribelet averaged about 200 people. The larger ones, of up to 500 people, had more than one permanent village.
Although men were usually chiefs, women occasionally held the office in the absence of male heirs. The position of chief was hereditary, but subject to village approval. Responsibilities included directing ceremonial, economic, and war activities; feeding visitors; providing for the poor; caring for captured grizzly bears and coyotes; and leading the council of elders. All power was advisory except in time of war. An official speaker also had ceremonial and diplomatic duties.
Costanoans maintained a clan structure as well as a division into two main groups, Deer and Bear. Small gifts given from groom to bride constituted the marriage formalities. The new couple lived in the groom's father's house. Men might have more than one wife. The dead and their possessions were either buried or cremated; their souls were said to journey across the sea. Widows cut or singed their hair, covered their heads with ashes or asphalt, and battered themselves, sometimes seriously.
Music often accompanied religious and mythological ritual. Both sexes underwent puberty rituals: Girls were confined to their houses and observed food taboos; boys used jimsonweed (datura) to seek visions. People played games such as a ball race, shinny (a variation of hockey), hoop-and-pole (in which an arrow was shot through a rolling hoop), dice, and the hand game (a traditional gambling game) and often bet on the results.
Most houses were conical in shape and built of tule, grass, or ferns around pole frames. Some Costanoan people substituted redwood slabs or bark. Sweat houses, used by men and women, were dug into the side of a stream. Large houses or brush enclosures served as dance sites.
Costanoans hunted deer using deer head disguises. They also hunted elk, antelope, bear, mountain lion, waterfowl, small mammals, and reptiles. They caught fish, especially salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, and lamprey in nets and traps. Fish were also speared by the light of a bonfire. Gathered foods included acorns, seeds, berries, nuts, insects, grapes, roots, greens, and honey. The people also ate shell-fish as well as beached whales and sea lions.
Costanoans also practiced land management by controlled burning. This activity promoted the growth of seed-bearing plants, consumed dead plant material (a fire hazard), increased the grazing area for game, and facilitated acorn gathering.
Technological innovations among the Costanoans included the use of tule balsa canoes; twined baskets; musical instruments, including bird bone whistles, alder flutes, rattles, and a musical bow; earth ovens (for roasting meat, especially sea lion and whale); a variety of nets for catching rabbits, fish, and fowl; and cage-like traps to capture quail. Milkweed, hemp, or nettle fiber was used for cordage. Bedding was of tule mats and animal skins.
Men often wore no clothes; women wore tule or buckskin aprons. Rabbit skin, deerskin, duck feather, or otter skin robes were worn in cold weather. Some men wore beards but most plucked facial hair with wooden tweezers or a pair of mussel shells or singed it with a hot coal. Both sexes painted and tattooed their bodies. Ornaments were worn in pierced ears and around the neck.
War was not uncommon among the Costanoan tribes, as well as between the Costanoans and the Esselens, Salinans, and Northern Valley Yokuts. Trespass often provoked hostilities, which began either by prearrangement or by surprise attack. Captives, except young women, were usually killed, their heads displayed on a pike in the village. Raiding parties burned enemy villages. The main weapon was the bow and arrow.
Costanoan ancestors reached the two bay areas in roughly 500. They first encountered non-Natives in the Sebastián Vizcaíno exploring expeditions of 1602. By the late eighteenth century, the Spanish had built seven missions in their territory and forced most Costanoans to join them.
In an effort to stem and reverse their cultural and physical extinction, the Costanoans in the late eighteenth century organized several incidents of armed resistance. Between 1770 and 1832, the Costanoan population fell by more than 80 percent as a result of disease, hardship, and general abuse. Their aboriginal existence disappeared during this time, as their culture and traditional practices were repressed and they mingled and mixed with other Indian peoples, including Esselens, Miwoks, and Yokuts, who were also brought by force to the missions.
After 1835, when Mexico secularized the missions, many Costanoans worked on ranches or tried to return to a hunting and gathering existence. Most, however, had become mixed with non-Natives and other Indians, establishing multiethnic Indian communities in the area. Costanoans were considered ethnologically extinct by the early twentieth century.
However, land claims cases in the 1920s and the 1960s resulted in small monetary payments and, as well, the recognition of Costanoan/Ohlone survival. Also in the 1960s, Costanoan descendents of Mission San José prevented the destruction of a burial ground that lay in the proposed path of a freeway. These people later organized as the Ohlone Indian tribe and now hold title to a cemetery in Fremont, California. A similar situation occurred in 1975, resulting in the establishment of the Pajaro Valley Ohlone Indian Council. In 1911 and again in 1988, individuals received trust allotments that became the Costanoan refuge of Indian Canyon.