LATE PREHISTORIC (1500 - 150 BP)


The camps of Late Prehistoric people are found throughout the Eastern Sierra. They are more numerous and widespread than those of earlier periods. The average climate during this interval was much like today, but there were many short-term shifts in temperature and rainfall. Among the most important of these is the “Medieval Climatic Anomaly” (MCA), a span of extended drought that lasted, off and on, from about A.D. 800 to 1350. This warming event was experienced across much of the world. Lakes in the Sierra Nevada shrank in size, treelines moved, and some of the major rivers slowed to only a trickle.

Some archaeologists believe that the MCA had profound effects on indigenous peoples of western North America. Food resources became scarce, health declined, and levels of intergroup conflict increased. It is not clear that peoples of the Eastern Sierra suffered the same impacts. This is perhaps because their lifeway was already prepared to deal with variation in the amount and location of food resources.

Late Prehistoric settlements appear for the first time in places that earlier people made little use of, like the barren shore of Owens Lake  and the high mountains. Other camps and settlements are found in the same places as before, often near reliable sources of food and water. Archaeological sites that have offered much information on lifeways of the later prehistoric era include the Lubkin Creek and Shepherd Creek residential camps. Investigations at these and other Late Prehistoric sites indicate many changes in how people lived.


LATE PREHISTORIC HOUSES:

The earliest Late Prehistoric houses look much like those of the Middle Prehistoric period. They are large, well built structures with excavated foundations. But the size, construction, and contents of houses changed dramatically around 1000 years ago. Houses get smaller, they have no excavated foundation, and they lack the tool caches found in earlier structures. Smaller timbers were needed to support structures of this kind and roof/wall coverings were often very light and flimsy. Many probably provided little more protection than shade from the sun and strong winds.

The lighter construction and disappearance of tool caches indicates that houses were built and used only once, with no intention of returning the following year. Numerous activities were conducted outside the houses. Cooking pits and refuse areas are frequently located just beyond the entryway or door. The change in size further suggests that households were getting smaller. Most Late Prehistoric houses were occupied by only several people from a single nuclear family – parents and their kids. All of this reflects a major shift in the organization of society and the way that people interacted and exploited the land.

Rock ring houses have also been identified in some places. These were constructed where soils were harder, rock rubble was easily acquired, and roof/wall materials was more scarce. Such structures also offered more protection from the elements and may have been used during colder times of the year. Examples from the high White Mountains are especially well built.


LATE PREHISTORIC ARTIFACTS:

Most Late Prehistoric artifacts are similar to those of earlier times. Some, however, change in important ways and others get added or disappear from the technology. This reflects important adjustments in how people organized their lives, technology, and use of the environment. Living in smaller territories meant that people could predict the tools they needed instead of carrying everything along. Many tools became simpler or more specialized as a result, like the difference in what we pack in our cars for a day at work or a family vacation.

Many Late Prehistoric flaked stone artifacts are simpler and smaller. For example, projectile points or arrow heads are smaller. This reflects the introduction of the bow and arrow around 1300 years ago and meant that less stone was needed to make them. Stone knives or bifaces are less common, smaller, and more simply made than before. They no longer had to be carried and used for weeks at a time. In fact, many cutting and scraping jobs were done with nothing but a sharp stone flake. These were easy to make and could be thrown away when the job was done. Like a lot of today’s products, Late Prehistoric technology was designed to be easily made, used, and disposable. Some of these flake tools were used so little that they are difficult to identify.

 

Late Prehistoric grinding tools show a similar change to simpler, more specialized artifacts. Deep basin-shaped and other fancy grinding tools common at Middle Prehistoric sites are no longer made. They are replaced mostly by unshaped milling tools that were used and discarded as needed  . An exception to this is a specialized, portable grinding stone that could be carried with straps like a shoulder bag (on the right). These allowed women to process seeds wherever they went, instead of waiting to return home.

Another important change in milling technology was a much increased use of bedrock grinding surfaces and mortars. Thousands of these are found throughout the Eastern Sierra, where people gathered and processed seeds and nuts. They were located where suitable stone outcrops were present near rich resource areas. A final change was the development of large threshing floors and roasting pits to mass process seeds and pine nuts. This increased the size of the harvest and number of people who could be fed off the land.


Other tools and ornaments were also made and used by Late Prehistoric people. Shell beads from southern California are more abundant than ever. They are one of the more common artifacts found on house floors. Local stone and bone beads are also found, indicating a change in the way that local and surrounding groups interacted. Some archaeologists have suggested that the abundant beads of this era served as currency. They could be used to purchase food or other important resources from neighboring groups if local sources failed.

Another important change in technology was the introduction of pottery around 500 years ago. Because it is heavy and easily broken, pottery is more common among sedentary than migratory people. This may help explain its late arrival in the Eastern Sierra, when people moved around less and over shorter distances. Although breakable, pottery has many advantages. It is fast and easy to make, cooks seeds and other food more efficiently, and saves on the amount of firewood. These are important things in desert environments, where food and fuel are limited.


FOOD REMAINS:

Most of the food remains from late Prehistoric sites and houses are similar to earlier periods. But some food that was rarely eaten before became extremely important. This is especially true for certain plant foods that are nutritious, but require a lot of work to use. Despite the effort required, as human populations grew and more food was needed the extra work to gather and prepare it became necessary.

         
 "Blazing Star"                                  "Rice Grass"
Both the number and kinds of charred seeds show that plant foods were more important over time. This includes the seeds of wild grasses and flowering plants that were collected and stored for winter use . Even more important were pine nuts and acorns. These were gathered in the late summer and fall from special camps in the mountains. Up to 600-800 pounds of pine nuts could be harvested in a good year. Pine nuts were so important that when local crops failed, families traveled sometimes 50 miles to collect them. While both pine nuts and acorns are nutritious, they were a lot of work to collect, process, and store. This is why earlier people didn’t eat them as much, preferring foods that were less costly to use.


Another group of plants that became more important in the Late Prehistoric period were wild root crops. These included nut grass, cattail, bitterroot, and probably others. Nut grass is a common weed in many people’s lawns and gardens, but its tubers have been eaten by people in many parts of the world. In the Eastern Sierra , it was gathered from wild stands in wetter parts of the valleys and eventually irrigated to increase its abundance. Other crops like bitterroot (on the left) were gathered at high elevation camps in the mountains, where earlier people spent little time.



As before, mountain sheep, antelope, and rabbits were favorite targets of Late Prehistoric hunters. But other small game and fish were of growing importance. These included larger rodents, like ground squirrels, packrats, and marmots that were caught in traps (on the right). The use of these “passive” or wait-and-see techniques allowed people to conduct other activities at the same time.
 

More ducks and other birds were also eaten, although they took a lot of work to hunt. Another important change was an increased use of fish and other aquatic animals. Large fish were eaten from Early Prehistoric times onward. In the Late Prehistoric period, however, mostly small, sardine-size fish were eaten. The reason for this change probably relates to the fact that more meat was produced by catching lots of small fish than only a few bigger fish. Another addition to the Late Prehistoric diet were freshwater mussels. Hundreds of these were collected and eaten like shellfish today. Without butter, tartar sauce, or deep frying, however, they had little nutritional value. The eating of brine fly and pandora moth larvae may have also started at this time, when more kinds of food were eaten than ever before.



SOCIAL ORGANIZATION:

One of the biggest changes in Late Prehistoric life was the way that people organized themselves and related to one another. Earlier people were organized as communal groups, living in large houses. By contrast, Late Prehistoric people were organized more like today’s households, with mom, dad, and the kids living as an independent family. Houses were smaller and simpler as a result, with many daily activities occurring outside. Many of these Late Prehistoric houses were also located far from other structure or households. This indicates that families supported themselves, producing all of the tools, food, and other necessities of life. If a family was in trouble, they could certainly count on relatives and friends for help, but household independence replaced the daily sharing of earlier communal life. This meant that families could travel wherever they liked and live in places that were difficult for large communal groups who needed more food. In fact, thousands of small, Late Prehistoric camps dot the Eastern Sierran landscape, from the mountain tops across the valley bottoms.



RAW MATERIALS / MOBILITY:

As in earlier times, the kinds of obsidian and other raw materials at sites indicate how people moved across the landscape. Most Late Prehistoric tool stone comes from sources nearest to the sites. This indicates that people moved frequently, but over generally small areas. Other materials like shell beads, pottery, and finished tools show that local people also had ties to distant areas. Some of these exotic artifacts may have arrived through trade, some with people from distant places, and others were brought by local people returning from trips. Most of us do the same thing today -- spend most of our lives near home, but depend on food and other things shipped or brought from distant places. Evidence from Shepherd Creek and other sites suggests that much of this trade and travel related to pine nuts. Once these became a critical part of the diet, people from the Eastern Sierra and elsewhere had to often travel in search of nuts when local crops failed.


OTHER SITES:

In addition to substantial winter settlements like Lubkin Creek and Shepherd Creek there were many seasonal camps. These were places where families stopped to collect food before moving to a new location. Identified by the presence of grinding stones and a handful of other artifacts, Temporary Camps were scattered throughout the valleys. Most were visited for only a few days when local food was available before families moved to the next food patch.
 

After spring seed crops were harvested in the valleys, some families moved high into the mountains. These Alpine Settlements were located in places where root crops, marmots, and mountain sheep were available, visited when there was little to eat in the arid valleys below. They were probably occupied only during the summer months when weather conditions were at their best.
 


When pine nuts ripened in the late summer, families moved to the pinyon woodland on the lower mountain slopes. Pine Nut Camps served as places where everyone worked to gather and store nuts for the coming winter. If the harvest was good, families might spend the winter in the woodlands, or return to valley settlements and retrieve their nuts as needed. Such sites are often marked by small rock rings that served as storage areas (on the left) for nuts left in the uplands.


 


WEB SITE DESIGNED BY // BRIAN JAMES // 2011
INFORMATION COMPILED BY// MARK BASGALL : MICHAEL DELACORTE : BRIDGET WALL // 2011