MIDDLE PREHISTORIC (3500 - 1500 BP)


Sites dating to Middle Prehistoric times are much more common than those of earlier periods. Climates during this span were much like those of today. Extended droughts of the preceding three millennia had ended, many lakes had partially filled, and stream flows were again high. Animal and plant communities were much like those we would see now.

Many kinds of settlements were in use during the Middle Prehistoric period and they occur in a wider range of environments. Some are small scatters of chipping flakes with just a few tools. Others are large concentrations of artifacts, midden, house floors, and other kinds of refuse. Most of the smaller sites are specialized hunting or gathering camps where a few people stayed for a day or two. The larger settlements are places where entire groups camped for many weeks or months. Limited parties would leave these centralized living locations to hunt or gather food resources in other areas. Such foodstuffs would then be returned to the primary camp for use by the wider community.

Two of the more important major settlements that have been carefully investigated are at Lubkin Creek, south of Lone Pine, and Birch Creek above the town of Bishop. Excavations at both places have revealed much about lifeways during the Middle Prehistoric period. In each case the work was funded by Caltrans to salvage valuable information ahead of planned highway construction.
 

MIDDLE PREHISTORIC HOUSES:
                                                                                                                          
"Puebloan structures"
It is in the Middle Prehistoric era that archaeologists first start to find good evidence of houses. The size and kind of houses people live in says a lot about the way they organize our lives. Big houses, sometimes with multiple rooms, tend to shelter larger families (Puebloan structures on the right). Houses intended for winter use tend to be well built and insulated. Modern summer and weekend homes are usually smaller and simpler, but often contain special equipment like skis, fishing rods, and boats. The same is true for prehistoric houses, where the size, construction, and artifacts say a lot about the organization of earlier societies.

Middle Prehistoric house of the Eastern Sierra are larger than later prehistoric and historic houses. Most are about 15 feet or more in diameter, half again the size of later houses. This suggests that Middle Prehistoric households were larger and organized differently than later family groups. These houses were also more substantially built. Floors were dug 10-15 inches below ground and covered with a domed framework of poles thatched with reeds. This provided a well insulated home for the cold winter months. As in later times, floors were apparently covered with soft grass bedding on which people slept with woven rabbit skin blankets.


"Middle Prehistoric House Floor Profile, INY-1384/H"
 


Because these structures were occupied
longer and under harsher conditions, more activities were carried out inside the houses. They often contain more refuse than Late Prehistoric houses and can have interior cooking features and storage areas (on the left). Middle Prehistoric houses tend to have numerous tools that were carefully kept or cached in pits or out of the way near the walls. This indicates that valuable tools were intentionally left in houses when people moved to other places for the spring and summer and then returned in the fall.
 

MIDDLE PREHISTORIC ARTIFACTS:

Many kinds of artifacts are found at Middle Prehistoric sites. These are made from numerous kinds of material and provide much of the information we have about prehistoric life. Flaked stone is still abundant, but ground and battered stone tools have become increasingly important. Specific forms are often different, but flaked stone tools are often still intended to be carried around and used in more than one place. Some of the stone materials that were important to Early Prehistoric peoples occur more rarely. Durable volcanics and cherts have been replaced almost entirely by more brittle obsidian. By using mostly one kind of material, Middle Prehistoric people were dependent on fewer sources of stone. This probably reflects a more regular pattern of movement from one site to the next.


Middle Prehistoric grinding tools were also intended for long-term use. Some of these are large, heavy implements that were made and used at a single place and stored there until the group returned. Others were smaller and lighter, carried along when people changed living or food gathering locations. But one thing links these different artifact types. They are generally carefully made tools that are well worn and often show signs of resharpening. When grinding surfaces become too smooth from use it is necessary to “roughen” them by pecking out small pits.




Many other kinds of artifacts have been found less often at Middle Prehistoric sites. These include special items like beads and other ornaments that were valued for their beauty or scarcity. Others were made from bone, shell, and plant materials that do not preserve as well or as often. Shell beads were made from Pacific Ocean mollusks like olive snail and abalone. Most were probably traded into the Eastern Sierra from southern California. More common are artifacts made from animal bone, including bone awls. Shaped something like a modern knitting needle, awls were used to weave baskets, mats, and other textiles. These were made by peoples of the Great Basin for at least 10,000 years.


 


Shaft straighteners are also found in Middle Prehistoric archaeological deposits. These are grooved pieces of talc or soapstone. They were heated in fires and used to straighten the cane or phragmites shafts used in making darts for the atlatl. Gaming pieces are short rods of bone or cubes of soapstone that were used for playing hand game. This is a traditional gambling game that is still played today by many Great Basin and other Native American tribes. Significantly, many of these important artifacts types are usually found on house floors, where they were left until their owners could return.



 

FOOD REMAINS:

Archaeologists know much more about the diets of Middle Prehistoric people and much of the information comes from prehistoric houses. Many kinds of wild plant and animal foods were eaten. These changed by season and availability, like the fruits, vegetables, and shellfish in the supermarket. Some were more easily hunted or collected than others, making them more or less "expensive" foods. And some may have been more desirable than other because of their taste, storability, or other cultural values. Although cultural preferences are hard to reconstruct, we can identify what was eaten and get some idea of the more and less important foods. Information from houses tells us what a family or household ate at a particular time, place, and season in the past.


The most important foods found in Middle Prehistoric houses are seeds like Indian ricegrass (
Achnatherum hymenoides) and goosefoot (Chenopodium spp.
). These were collected in the spring and summer, toasted with hot coals, and then ground on a milling stone. Some were probably eaten right away and others stored for the next winter. In fact, early ripening seeds are less abundant in winter houses than are late season crops. This shows the importance of food storage. The most interesting thing is that some plant foods were rarely eaten. These include pine nuts and acorns, both of which were very important to later people in the Eastern Sierra people. But pine nuts and acorns take a lot of time to collect and prepare and are very unreliable from one year to the next. This makes them "expensive" resources that were probably avoided by Middle Prehistoric groups because they had better choices.

 


Many animals were also hunted and eaten by Middle Prehistoric people. Large game like mountain sheep and antelope were hunted by groups of men with spear throwers. Under the right conditions many animals might be killed this way. But the animal bones from house floors indicate that much of the meat in Middle Prehistoric times came from smaller animals hunted nearby. At Lubkin Creek these included jackrabbits and grebes from the surrounding desert and Owens Lake. At Birch Creek and other sites they included jackrabbits and small fish. This shows that many animals were eaten, including some that were ignored in Early Prehistoric times. Other animals like rodents and freshwater shellfish were rarely eaten, but became important in later periods. This tells us that life continued to change, as it does today.



SOCIAL ORGANIZATION:

All of us belong to many social groups -- a family, a household, clubs, the community we live in. How societies divide themselves into groups says a lot about their economies and the way people view themselves in relation to others. Social groups leave little evidence behind, but are preserved in other ways. This is how we know that Middle Prehistoric groups had a different kind of organization than later people.


Middle Prehistoric houses (on the left) were quite large and probably sheltered extended family or household groups. These consist of a couple and one or more of their married children and offspring. Middle Prehistoric sites are also larger than many later settlements. This suggests groups of several dozen, not a handful of people as in Late Prehistoric times. Another thing that distinguishes the Middle Prehistoric are numerous specialized camps. These were places where specialized groups went to exploit resources for the community, not themselves or their individual families. Most food obtained by these groups was brought back to the larger settlement and shared by everyone. All of which indicates that Middle Prehistoric populations were organized as cooperative bands, not the independent families found in later periods.


 

RAW MATERIALS/ MOBILITY

Obsidian or volcanic glass is extremely abundant in the Eastern Sierra and was extensively used to make flaked stone tools. Two of the more unique properties of obsidian are that it is easily traced to its geologic source and that tools made of it can be directly dated with a technique called obsidian hydration. This allows archaeologists to track the movement of prehistoric people as they traveled from one obsidian source to another during the year. Once made, obsidian tools were carried and used until they broke and were replaced with new ones. As one moves farther and farther from an obsidian source, therefore, the amount of material decreases and the condition and kinds of tools change as they are replaced by more recently made tools from other sources.

This information and the location of sites has been used to reconstruct the annual movement of Middle Prehistoric populations across the Eastern Sierra. People traveled more than a 120 miles north-south between major settlements. Other, smaller, special purpose sites were visited along the way to exploit food resources, stone quarries, and conduct other activities.


OTHER SITES:

There were many more specialized sites in addition to major residential settlements like Lubkin Creek and Birch Creek. These would have been visited on short trips from larger settlements to exploit food and other resources located more than a day’s travel from home.

Hunting Camps in the mountains and valley were visited by groups of men pursuing antelope, mountain sheep, and other highly profitable game. One of these sites in the Mono Basin (MNO-705) had more than 150 Middle Prehistoric projectile points, nearly 600 stone knife or point fragments, and the remains of at least a dozen antelope killed by hunters. Other hunting areas have stacked wall blinds (on the left) where the hunter could hide until animals approached .

Gathering Camps were places where people went specifically to collect seeds. Many of these were located far from residential bases in places like the Volcanic Tablelands and shore of Owens Lake. The only artifacts found in abundance at gathering camps are ground stone tools and bedrock milling features (on the left) used to process seeds before they were carried back to the main settlement.


Obsidian and other Toolstone Quarries were visited to obtain material for making stone tools. Preliminary working of stone occurred at the quarries, so nothing had to be carried very far. This also allowed knappers to make sure any stone they carried away was of good quality. Many cobbles found at quarry locations have natural cracks or other flaws that cause undesirable breakage when flaked. Partially finished tools were taken back to living sites or stone working camps nearby, where the tools were completed or reduced to a smaller size.
 



Creation of Rock Art was clearly an important aspect of Middle Prehistoric life. Literally thousands of petroglyphs were left behind by these people. Petroglyphs are pictures and designs pecked or cut into the surface of dark-colored rock to expose the lighter material underneath. Some are easily identifiable as people, animals, and other life-like things, but others are more abstract designs of unknown meaning. The purpose or function of petroglyphs has been debated for years, but no one really knows what they meant to the Middle Prehistoric people who made them.



 


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