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January 17, 2003

Professor unearths home of Native American Cleavers

Sometimes what seems like a dead-end turns out to be just a fork in the road. While CSUS anthropology professor Michael Delacorte was unable to find a dramatic story behind a mysterious pile of animal bones in the Nevada desert a few summers back, he kept digging and found evidence of a prehistoric version of a Native American nuclear family.

The cave in the northwestern part of the state had been identified as a potential archaeological find by the Bureau of Land Management during a routine land exchange. Delacorte was called in to investigate.

Though the site yielded only a miniscule collection of artifacts, it represented everything a family in the 1700s would have needed. "It's a tiny package of time and behavior," Delacorte says, adding that it indicates that the dwelling was the home for a single Shashone family over three or more months. "The fact that it was used for a short time and by only one family makes it so valuable," he says. "Small sites are often dismissed but they can be very informative. There's a lot of story for a little stuff."

What was particularly interesting to Delacorte about the site is what it says about the family unit of the time. He has found the same family package-the same types of tools and cooking vessels-at other locations and other environments again and again. "In a sense it's the same family. In 'Leave It To Beaver' you have an idealized family. People are expected to all be the same. Here it is really true," he says.

These single-family units, similar to what the Europeans saw when they first arrived in Nevada, signal a dramatic shift from the large 50- to 60-member nomadic bands seen until about 1,400 years ago.

"I believe the change was driven by a wholesale shift in the way they organized themselves which drove the way they lived," Delacorte says. Previously, the groups were organized into loose collections of five or six families, a core collection with kinship ties. It was very communal with an expectation of sharing.

Once they became individual household units, there was a privatization of food sources and an incentive to work harder than in previous times. In hunter-gatherer groups that leads to a more intense system, he says. "When family groups are off on their own, they're more flexible than bands. It's practical to go where a big group couldn't. They put in more energy, more effort because it was all coming home."

Delacorte's project, which was funded by the Bureau of Land Management, aroused attention because of the tremendous number of cattle bones on the cave floor. They hoped they had found a bison kill site but it appears the animals merely used the cave for shelter and died as the result of natural causes.

But underneath, Delacorte's team found evidence of earlier human occupation-tools such as grinding stones as well as arrowheads and pottery. "Everything you'd expect a household to use," he says.

He also noticed the range of local plants and animals in the area, which helped to prove the single family concept. "That was one of the things that made it interesting. Six and a half thousand years ago, they would've needed a bigger site to support more people," he says.

Delacorte also has a theory about the root of the switch from large bands to single-family units. "I tend to think the bow and arrow may have had lot to do with those fundamental changes that produced the single-family household. Previously, weapons didn't have the accuracy of the bow and arrow so groups needed to rely on cooperative hunting," he says. "The bow and arrow almost certainly made individual hunters more successful. It's a fairly simple piece of equipment that makes individuals pretty formidable characters."

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