unearths home of Native American Cleavers
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
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
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 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,"
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