MIDDLE PREHISTORIC (3500 -
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
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.
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
homes are usually
smaller and simpler,
but often contain special
skis, fishing rods,
The same is true for
construction, and artifacts say a lot about the
organization of earlier societies.
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
"Middle Prehistoric House Floor Profile, INY-1384/H"
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
important foods found in Middle Prehistoric houses are seeds
like Indian ricegrass (Achnatherum
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
were rarely eaten. These include
pine nuts and acorns, both
were very important
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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 .
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
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.