Although most archaeologists recognize that valuable information about the social lives of ancient people can be obtained through the study of burial practices, it is clear that the symbolic nature of burial rituals makes interpreting their social significance a hazardous enterprise. These analytical difficulties can be greatly reduced using a research strategy that draws upon the strengths of a broad range of conceptually and methodologically independent data sources. We illustrate this approach by using archaeological data from cemeteries at Malibu, California, to explore an issue over which researchers are sharply divided: when did the simple chiefdoms of the Chumash Indians first appear in the Santa Barbara Channel area? First we establish the social correlates of Chumash burial practices through the comparison of historic-period cemetery data, ethnohistoric records, and ethnographic accounts. The resulting understanding of mortuary symbolism is then used to generate hypotheses about the social significance of prehistoric-period Malibu burial patterns. Finally, bioarchaeological data on genetic relationships, health status, and activity are used to independently test artifact-based hypotheses about prehistoric Chumash social organization. Together, these independent data sources constitute strong evidence for the existence of a ranked society with a hereditary elite during the late Middle period in the Santa Barbara Channel area.