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.

Environmental conditions fluctuated early on. This is clearly shown by the water levels of Owens Lake, near Lone Pine and treelines in 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 disappearance of 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 remains.

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 stemmed 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.

The chronology and 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 radiocarbon (C14 Plot) and obsidian hydration (Hydration 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 chronology to 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 Historic Times 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.