EARLY PREHISTORIC (12,000 - 3500 BP)

The earliest evidence of human occupation in the Eastern Sierra dates back to the last years of the Pleistocene era. Many of the desert lakes were full at this time and temperatures were cooler than today. While they would look mostly familiar to people of our time, plant and animal communities were distributed differently than they are now. Some animals disappeared at or around the time people first arrived in the area. These extinct fauna included large animals like mammoths, camels, horses, dire wolves, and saber-toothed cats that have been found as fossils in many places.

Archaeologists know more about the beginning of the Early Prehistoric period (12,000-7500 BP) than its end (7500-3500 BP). The reasons for this gap in knowledge are presented elsewhere. Camps of these earliest people are found in many kinds of locations. They are most numerous in places that were well-watered, near old streams and marshes in large lake basins and along major river corridors. They are also sometimes found at higher elevations and uplands far removed from water sources. Two important settlements of this time period are the Lakebed site at China Lake and the Stahl site at Little Lake. Archaeological remains at both sites portray lifeways very different than those that followed.


Little is known about houses of Early Prehistoric times. There are two reasons for this. Most sites of this age are surface artifact scatters on eroded landforms that would not have preserved house floors. People of this era also moved around a lot and probably camped at any one location for only a short time. It would make little sense to invest much effort in constructing significant structures. Which is not to say they had no living structures. Rather, houses were probably very simple, perhaps no more than brush or hide-covered lean-tos. Unless people spend considerable time inside houses, there are few traces left behind.

One possible discovery of ancient houses was made at the Stahl site. Archaeologist Raymond Harrington reported seven buried features that he thought were “house sites.” Circular to oval in shape, the houses were 2.5 to 3.0 meters in diameter and discovered near the bottom of the midden deposit. Sediments at this depth were hard and had numerous small pits extending further into the lower soil. These were believed to be post-holes that once contained house supports. Because some of the pits connected in an arc-like shape, Harrington took them to mark the perimeter of the early house constructions

But there was a problem. It was true that some of the “post holes” made a circular outline, but there were also many similar pits in the interior of the houses. If all of these marked the position of old support posts, there would have been little room for people inside the structures. Most archaeologists today question the reality of the Stahl site houses. The numerous pits are likely the bottoms of rodent burrows that quit digging when the soils became too cemented.


The Stahl site does represents the kind of settlement where houses could be expected. The very large midden deposit at this site contained thousands of artifacts and a wide range of tool types. People must have either lived there for a long time or revisited the location on many occasions to leave so much material behind. There is little doubt that Early Prehistoric houses will eventually be found in the Eastern Sierra when the right sites are discovered and investigated. They will likely be very similar to those of later periods.


Artifacts found at the earliest sites are almost all made by flaking or chipping stone. Ground stone tools used to process plant foods do rarely occur, but they are exceedingly rare at sites older than 8500 BP. The flaked stone artifacts themselves indicate that tools were made to support a really mobile lifeway. People who move around a lot may not be near sources of new tool material (quarry) for days or weeks at a time. Their tools need to be durable, easy to repair or re-sharpen, and they should be able to perform more than one role. Archaeologists see this in several ways. Different kinds of stone are more durable than others and Early Prehistoric peoples chose to use particular materials for artifacts that needed to last or were used in heavier activities. Even where obsidian is superabundant, many cutting and scraping tools were deliberately made from harder basalts, rhyolites, and chert materials. Obsidian was simply too brittle.

Tools also show signs of having been repaired multiple times and apparently kept around for some time. This is very different than in Late Prehistoric times, when many artifacts were made and used as needed and then immediately discarded. Some archaeologists refer to these kinds of tools as being “curated” – which means they were made to perform long-term needs and not just to perform a job at the moment. Many of our tools today are of the same sort, stored away until needed to open a beer or bottle of wine.


Additional clues to Early Prehistoric technology are found in the source of the stone material. Many of the tools are made from lithic sources that were not available locally. Obsidian and basalt artifacts from the southern Owens Valley originated at quarries located hundreds of kilometers north or east of where they were found. This indicates that people moved over large geographic ranges and did so fairly quickly. Even the most durable flaked stone artifacts would rarely survive for more than weeks or months.

Grinding tools were very uncommon before about 8500 BP. The few found are barely used and look quite different than later artifacts. It is possible that these earliest tools were used to prepare products other than seeds. After their introduction, ground and battered stone tools become abundant very quickly. Millingslabs and handstones are common at sites containing Pinto points, which occasionally also contain other kinds of plant processing tools. Largely ignored before this time, plant foods clearly became important in relatively short order.

Few other artifact types have been found at Early Prehistoric sites. This is partly due to the fact that organic remains (wood, bone, and shell) preserve poorly in really old surface deposits. But it also may reflect the way people lived. Rare examples of shell beads and modified stone objects have been discovered at early sites, but intergroup trade and decoration was probably less important than in later periods.


Poor preservation has also made it hard to find food remains at Early Prehistoric sites in the Eastern Sierra. Almost nothing is known about the kinds of plant foods that may have been eaten and we can but guess about that the grinding tools that occur. It is likely that people of this era used a range of seeds, nut crops, roots and tubers but the details wait future discoveries. There is better information regarding early hunting activities and the kinds of animals people were relying upon. Speculation continues on whether the earliest people ate extinct fauna like mammoths or camels, but there is no firm evidence of this. Sites in the Eastern Sierra and nearby areas suggest that most modern animal forms were consumed. These include large game like mountain sheep, medium-size rabbits and hares, and a many kinds of small rodents, reptiles, and fish. Even though large animals were plentiful in the rich environments of this period, it appears that people relied as much or more on smaller critters that were more easily acquired.



A lack of information on Early Prehistoric houses limits our understanding of social organization during this interval. Based on less secure reasoning, it appears that at least two kinds of social patterns existed between 12,000-3500 BP. The earliest people were highly mobile and probably lived in small groups. They relocated their camps often as food or other important resources in the local area became depleted, or because much better resources become available someplace else. People were unwilling to travel too far to hunt or gather foods. They preferred to move the entire settlement when the pickings were better elsewhere. Judging by the small amounts of material found at many sites, these may have been one or two family groups that occasionally assembled in larger numbers to harvest food windfalls or arrange marriages.


Another kind of organization appeared after 8500 BP in at least some parts of the Eastern Sierra. This was probably similar in many ways to the lifeway that is better documented for the Middle Prehistoric period, after 3500 BP. Social groups were larger and consisted of multiple extended family units that lived as a single community. These people still moved around a lot, but occupied centralized settlements for longer periods of time. Areas and resources at some distance from the main village were exploited by smaller task groups who spent time way from the main base camp. Hunters might go to the uplands to obtain mountain sheep and plant foods might be collected in distant habitats. Products gathered at some distance from the central camp were returned to that location and shared amongst the wider community. This kind of organization allowed people to live in larger groups and stay at one place for longer periods. It also allowed for more successful use of resources in a broader area around the site.


We have already commented on how Early Prehistoric materials often originated at locations far from where they are found. Some of these exotic goods may have been obtained by trading with groups in those distant areas, but we believe most of them were directly obtained when the people were there themselves. This indicates that people ranged over large areas and covered these distances fairly quickly. It is quite possible that the same social groups spent time in the San Joaquin Valley, southwestern Nevada, and around Mono Lake in addition to the Eastern Sierra. Occasional finds of shell beads from the southern California coast and Gulf of California probably indicates trade with people at the edge of that zone.


The Lakebed and Stahl sites highlighted here relate to two distinct kinds of settlement pattern. The artifact scatters at China Lake sites studied by Emma Lou Davis formed over a long period of time. Small groups revisited the same location on many occasions, each time leaving a small amount of artifacts behind. What archaeologists discover as dense clusters of tools and waste flakes in fact represent the accumulations of numerous visits. The lakeshore environment and small streams feeding the basin must have been an attractive place to live between 12,000 and 7500 BP, but people seldom if ever stayed very long.

The Stahl site appears to be something else. Located near an important source of fresh water even as Eastern Sierra climate was growing warmer and drier, people stayed here for much longer periods. The midden at Little Lake (on the left) is extremely large, deep, and contains many kinds of artifacts, cooking features, and even human burials. People probably stayed here for several months at a time and returned resources from surrounding environments to the one centralized location. These visits to other places in the area must have produced temporary camps and food processing stations, but they have not yet been identified.