The "Eastern Sierra Nevada"
The “Eastern Sierra Nevada” region begins at the crest of
the Sierra Nevada mountains and extends to the Nevada
border. It includes both Mono and Inyo counties. Ranging in
elevation from below sea level at Badwater in Death Valley,
to nearly 14,500 feet on the top of Mount Whitney, the
eastern Sierra is environmentally diverse (see map above).
Depending on location, native plants on valley bottoms
include sage brush, saltbush, and creosote. Higher
elevations include woodlands, upland scrub, and treeless
alpine communities along the mountain crests. This is one of
the best watered areas in the Great Basin. The snow fields
and streams of the Sierra create large lakes and reservoirs,
as well as several major rivers, and sometimes fill playa
basins in the south. The modern environment of this region
has been changed by historical activities which included
mining and ranching. The largest effects came from the
construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the export of
massive amounts of local water.
conditions fluctuated early on. This is clearly shown by the
water levels of Owens Lake, near Lone Pine and
the White Mountains. The late Pleistocene
period (12,000-10,000 years BP) was cooler and moister than
today and had more extensive streams, lakes, and wetland
habitats. Climate became gradually warmer and drier during
the next 3500 years, reaching its peak between 6500-3500 BP.
Higher temperatures and reduced water led to the
Owens Lake itself. After such a prolonged
drought, climate of the Eastern Sierra began to look more
modern. The last 3500 years had several short-term shifts between
warmer/drier and cooler/moister conditions. Native
populations living in the region had to deal with these
sometimes dramatic shifts in environmental conditions.
There is some debate about when people first occupied the
Eastern Sierra. Claims for an older human presence are yet
to be confirmed, but we can be fairly sure that people were
living in the region by 10,000-12,000 BP. Details about
these ancient cultures are provided in other sections of
this webpage, but it is useful to give a quick sketch of the
timeline here. Archaeologists working in the Eastern Sierra
have developed a prehistoric cultural outline (Chronology) for arranging
campsites and artifacts in time. It is not surprising that
the more recent occupations are better understood and
documented than the older ones. Later materials are more
widespread and they can be dated with greater precision.
There is a significant gap in our knowledge of the interval
between 7500 and 3500 BP. This happens to be almost the same
interval as the prolonged drought. People probably did not
abandon the area entirely, but they may have been moving
around a lot more. A group may have stayed at any one place
briefly, and generally left fewer traces behind. Land
surfaces were also less stable during this period, increased
erosion may have destroyed or buried many archaeological
The archaeology left by the earliest people is fairly widespread. It commonly occurs in the old lake basins –
places like China Lake and
Owens Lake – but also appears in
other well-watered locations and rarely in upland settings.
Certain artifacts are considered typical of the period
between 12,000-7500 BP, including concave-base and large
projectile points and chipped stone
crescents. It is
likely that the concave-base points are somewhat older than
the stemmed points and crescents, but they may overlap in
time and represent different people.
artifact types of the next 4000 years are
less clear. There are fewer archaeological locations that
contain such remains, and there are a lot less dates to go
on. Existing dates based on the
Plot)methods show a strong downturn between 7500-3500
BP, making it difficult to pinpoint cultural changes during
that time span. Although the exact beginning and end dates
of artifacts during this time are uncertain, several
different kinds of
projectile points were in use. These
include split-stem forms, large side-notched forms, and
concave-base types different than those of earlier periods.
Most or all of these were used to tip darts used with the
atlatl or throwing stick and it was not until later that the
bow and arrow was added to the hunting kit.
Archaeological patterns become much clearer after 3500 BP.
Artifacts during the initial part of this period, between
3500-1500 BP, include large corner-notched projectile points
as well as a new kind of concave-base form. These are still
used with the throwing stick or spear-thrower. Weaponry changes significantly
around 1500 years ago, when the bow and arrow appears and
projectile tips shrink in size to fit the much lighter
arrows. Points typical of the period from 1500-700 BP
include smaller corner-notched forms, which change to
triangular, leaf-shaped, and side-notched shapes after 700
years ago. Such artifacts continued to be used into historic
times, which began about 150 BP, but were eventually
replaced with firearms brought in by the early settlers.
This era of first contact was a time of much turmoil as
Paiute and Shoshone peoples in the region struggled to
adjust to the presence of immigrant cultures.
Other sections of this webpage use a simpler
explore how Native American lifeways and domestic patterns
changed over time. The most ancient archaeological patterns
(12,000-3500 BP) together represent
Early Prehistoric Times,
Middle Prehistoric Times fall between 3500-1500 BP,
Late Prehistoric Times
comprise the interval from 1500-150 BP, and
begin with the arrival of Euro-Americans and other
non-native immigrants. Archaeologists know much more about
some of these time periods than others, and details become generally
clearer the more recent we get. Projects funded by the
California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) have
provided much of the information we have about Native
American archaeology in the Eastern Sierra.