This is what Los Angeles looked like before Hollywood

While today’s main economy in Los Angeles revolves around Hollywood and the entertainment industry, that wasn’t always the case. The City of Angels, at various times in history, was home to ancient rhinos and saber-toothed cats, powerful Eurasian migrants, oil barons and gold diggers. Here’s a brief history of LA, beginning thousands of years ago and going back in time to the 1910s, when Hollywood was officially established as the bread and circus capital of the world.

The prehistory of Los Angeles

For most of geologic history, Los Angeles was underwater – a basin at the bottom of the ocean. The coastline was somewhere as far inland as modern Utah. About 1.8 million years ago sea levels began to drop and seismic activity pushed the mountains beyond the surface of the water. The Los Angeles landmass was further accreted by silt deposits from passing glacial rivers.

Pleistocene megafauna populated the earth. The terrain was swampy and full of tar pits. Many of these prehistoric animals were trapped in the La Brea tar pits, and some of their preserved remains have been recovered by archaeologists and miners.

The tar pits originated from fluvial deposits accumulated in the Los Angeles Basin About 26,000 to 11,000 years ago, humans crossed the Bering Strait that connected Siberia to Alaska. These early migrants are the ancestors of the Clovis people, whose pottery and bones have been found all over North America, including Los Angeles.

Following the Young Ice Age of the Dryas, the climate rapidly cooled and the oceans froze to form glaciers. As a result, the coastline receded and the environment of Los Angeles became more suited to sustaining complex life. The Clovis civilization settled along the coast of Los Angeles, particularly in the Ballona wetlands.

One of the most promising remnants of the Clovis people has been recovered from the tar pits of Los Angeles. About 9,000 years ago, a young woman fell into a tar pit. Her body was preserved by tar, only to be discovered in 1914. She is known as La Brea Woman, and she likely lived around the same time as the Los Angeles man, who was also found relatively recently by construction workers.

Eventually, around 5000 BC, although this date is disputed, the Clovis civilization disappeared from the region. It is theorized that the first settlers were driven from the land by climate change. As warmer lands, the swamps turned into brackish lagoons that were less able to support human life.


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Recent history of Los Angeles before European contact

Los Angeles lay abandoned for a few thousand years until 1000 BC when the ancestors of the Chumash tribe appeared. It was a relatively advanced civilization, advanced enough to consider metaphysical questions that required them to practice complex funerary practices. This second wave of migrants from Los Angeles lived primarily on marine life. They practiced practically no agriculture because the land was rich and abundant. However, an economy with a specialized workforce began to take hold over the centuries.

At the turn of the millennium, the Gabrieleños people arrived in Los Angeles from the Mojave Desert. The Gabrieleños quickly displaced most of the Chumash, although some pockets of Chumash are still present in what is now known as Malibu. These residents practiced high culture, engaging in athletic competitions, musical instrumentation, and regional trade.


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By the year 1500, all of Los Angeles was occupied by the Gabrieleños and Chumash tribes. However, this was also the time when fate intervened and changed the land forever. In 1542, Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo arrived in Los Angeles with three ships. He was greeted by an army of heavily armed natives. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, the first contact ended on friendly terms and Cabrillo returned to Spain with tales of adventure and discovery.

A few hundred years after contact with the New World, the Spanish economy had been gutted by the influx of gold and resources. By relying on precious metals to import basic goods, all internal industries in Spain except the military were diminished. In the 17th century, Spain engaged in a number of costly wars that destroyed their import partnerships with other countries. Since humans cannot eat gold, the Spanish Empire fell into debt and declined.

Knowing of the fertile New World on America’s west coast, the desperate Spaniards sent an armada to Los Angeles in 1769. By 1776, the land had been tamed enough to warrant permanent settlers. The first wave of Spanish settlers was small, comprising only 30 families.

Colonization proceeded much as it does today, the Spaniards used a privileged priestly class to forcibly control and dominate the metaphysical assumptions of the Gabrieleños and Chumash peoples. Predictably, this led to reactionary feeling among the natives, and in 1785 the Gabrieleños led a militarized attack on priests and soldiers. Unfortunately for them, they were quickly overpowered. The rebel leaders included a young female shaman named Toypurina, who was exiled to Carmel in modern San Francisco.

Los Angeles remained a Spanish colony until 1822 when Mexico was established and the people of California eagerly joined the newly independent nation. During this period, the area was known as Mexican California.

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In 1833, perhaps under subversive British and American influence, the government of Mexico passed the Secularization Act, which abrogated the authority of the Catholic Church. Following this, the adhesive fabric of the Spanish-Mexican colony began to dissolve. Los Angeles was declared a city in 1835 and gold was discovered in the area soon after.

To the east, America was growing in strength, size, desperation and ferocity. In 1846 America declared war on Mexico. The war resulted in America taking more than half of all Mexican territory. In 1848, California and Los Angeles officially became US territory, and as such, California culture was marred by vigilance and rebellion. The Los Angeles Rangers formed to hunt “Mexican bandits” who did not accept the Anglo colonizers as their leaders.

The problem of banditry was greatly reduced after 1864, when a smallpox epidemic broke out and killed almost all the natives.

As gold, oil, and national commerce grew, a wealthy class of aristocrats, barons, and elites emerged in Los Angeles. Sports clubs, railways, banks, newspapers and luxury hotels were built to facilitate the free movement of capital.

In the early 1900s, the telltale signs of deindustrialization occurred. The stock exchange had been established, football stadiums had been built and, in general, the mood was defined by bread and circus – consumerism and luxury at the expense of industry.

Of course, the talos of this trend was reached in the 1920s with the rise of Hollywood – which ushered in a new era in Los Angeles history, but that story is for another article.


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