Catalina’s Stonehenge?

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One of the earliest accounts of Catalina Island passed down through the centuries by early Spanish explorers tells us of a mysterious religious shrine belonging to the Island Tongva; a place that the Spaniards referred to as the “Temple of the Sun.”

This temple was considered a central location for the worship of the Tongva deity Chinigchinich, which they considered to be the “sun god.”

One of the earliest accounts of Catalina Island passed down through the centuries by early Spanish explorers tells us of a mysterious religious shrine belonging to the Island Tongva; a place that the Spaniards referred to as the “Temple of the Sun.”

This temple was considered a central location for the worship of the Tongva deity Chinigchinich, which they considered to be the “sun god.”
While the Chinigchinich religion was practiced by Tongva all over Southern California, Catalina is believed to be the cultural center of the religion and as such the Island has the lion’s share of ceremonial artifacts and burial sites associated with it.

Now, before you go envisioning this temple as something out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with instant death traps and secret passages, you should know that it wasn’t quite that extensive.

In fact, there seems to have been no actual structure per se, but rather an outdoor array of altars, ceremonial burial sites and large stones whose purpose has never been ascertained. Nevertheless, by some accounts the entire complex was as wide as two miles in diameter.

Since the temple is now gone, the only information we have to go on comes from the visit in 1602 of Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino, the man who gave the island the name “Santa Catalina.”  The only graphic representation of the site was a simple circle drawn by him on a map.
According to Vizcaino’s chronicler, Father Torquemada, on the second day of their stopover at Catalina the Spaniards found “a level prairie, very well cleared, where the Indians were assembled to worship an idol which was there.”

This idol, wrote Torquemada, “resembled a demon, having two horns, no head, a dog at its feet and many children painted all around it.”  The idol was also adorned with numerous eagle feathers, attached there by Tongva men from all over Southern California during annual rituals held at the site.

Upon seeing this “blas-phemous”object, and against the warnings of the gathered Tongva, Vizcaino approached the idol and “made a cross and placed the name of Jesus on the head.”

Within the circle near the idol were seen two large ravens.  “The devil was in those crows (sic),” wrote Torquemada, “and spoke through them, for they were regarded with great respect and veneration.”

Aware of this veneration for ravens, the Spanish soldiersdid what we have come to expect from these men:  they shot them both dead, an act which instantly brought “laments” from the Tongva, but didn’t seem to adversely affect the rest of their stay at the Island.

What was thepurpose of the Temple of the Sun?  Was it purely of religious significance or did it have other uses as well?

Torquemada describes the center of the temple as being “formed by a large circle of long stones pointing upward toward the mid-day sun,” in the center of which was the idol. Given that the main purpose of the site was to worship the sun god, is it not conceivable that the stones were configured to record various astronomical events, such as the solstices and equinoxes?” (Hence the headline of today’s column “Catalina’s Stonehenge.”)

Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know the answer to this, as the temple has long since disappeared, something we can’t blame on the zealous Spaniards.  The site seems to have simply disappeared over the ensuing centuries, possibly due to intense rains.

Even our controversial artifact hunter from the 1920s, Ralph Glidden, didn’t venture a guess other than to possibly attribute its disappearance to earthquakes or landslides.

Although the site was believed to be either in the actual cradle of the Isthmus or perhaps on the plateau above the east side of Two Harbors near the buffalo pens, no trace of it has ever been found.
 

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