Native Land Use before History
It bears repeating that the foregoing view of Paiute culture derives entirely from accounts written by those who saw it first-hand or transcribed from the recollections of those who lived it. As such they are all subject to the same basic limitation: They
refer only to the most recent periods of human occupancy of the White Mountains, beginning no earlier than about 1820. Because there is good reason to believe that eastern California has been continuously populated for the last 10,000 years, exclusive reliance on written records as a basis of inference about native land use would leave about 9,800 years — 98% of the entire period — unspoken for.
Our only access to this earlier period of land use is through the study of the material residues resulting from that use, which is the concern of archaeology. Archaeological interpretation is in some respects more difficult than ethnographic interpretation because direct observation is limited to the physical remains left by an activity and from which the activity itself must be inferred; and if these activities can be inferred at all, it still remains to interpret the more general patterns they represent, just as piecemeal historical accounts and narratives must be organized into a coherent interpretation of native lifeways. The aims of archaeology and enthnography are similar, but the data of archaeology are more remote, the techniques and inferences are more complicated, and the interpretations are generally less precise and apply to broader periods of time.
It is an advantage of archaeology, however, that its data are not — as historical accounts and transcribed recollections are — subject to cultural preference and bias. The historical record is entirely blank on several aspects of the native life now considered central to the interpretation of aboriginal adaption, simply because neither early observers nor native participants saw them as particularly worthy of remark. Archaeology, then, offers the opportunity to examine these unrecorded aspects of native culture even in periods documented by written accounts. In the case of native land use in the White Mountains, however, the greatest potential application of archaeology is clearly in the area of prehistory, where there is no written record at all.
Like the most painstaking detective, the modern archaeologist takes it as given that, within certain limits, every human act leaves some form of evidence. In the simplest case, an object modified by a human — an artifact — can be recognized by its unnatural shape or the presence of unnatural markings; an unpeeled willow twig whittled to a point at one end is a good example. In a slightly different sense, plant and animal remains found in association with other evidence of human activity are termed ecofacts , which reflects their importance in reconstructing prehistoric diet and environment (i.e., the prehistoric ecosystem). At a more complex level of interpretation, any group of objects placed in such a way that the resulting pattern is recognizably unnatural is termed a feature ; the remains of structures, firepits, food caches, and refuse dumps, to name a few, are features. At a still more complex level, a concentration of artifiacts or features or both in one location is termed a site . Sites are generally taken to represent a focal point for one or more activities, which may be something as simple as the spot where an animal was killed and butchered or as complex as a permanent village. In addition to its archaeological assemblage, the location of a site with respect to the surrounding terrain and access to resources provides a major clue to the activities that were performed at the site.
A group of sites that exhibit similar kinds of artifacts, ecofacts, and features and occur in similar natural settings — suggesting use for the same purposes, in the same
seasons, by groups of similar size and social composition (e.g., by families) — are said to constitute a settlement category . The remains of the different Pinyon camps occupied in the fall and winter by the historic Paiute would in this sense be considered a settlement category.
Finally, at the most complex level, all of the settlement categories used by one prehistoric group are collectively defined as its settlement system . By analogy, all of the various camps, villages, and temporary work stations used by the historic Paiute may be said to constitute the Paiute settlement system. Most of the following discussion of prehistoric land use in the White Mountains refers to the different kinds of settlement categories represented in this range and their relationship to the settlement systems of which they are a part.
Dating — the placement of cultural objects in time — is central to the study of pre-historic land use in the White Mountains. It is necessary as a basis for establishing contemporaneity between sites and settlement categories, which is critical to the interpretation of the full spectrum of aboriginal activities at any one time and for the examination of changes in these activities through time.
Three dating techniques have been particularly useful in establishing a chronological framework for the White Mountains. Of these, the most accurate is radiocarbon , which determines the age of organic matter — in archaeology, principally charcoal and bone — by the content of 14 C, an unstable isotope of elemental carbon that decays with age; the less 14 C in a sample, the older it is. Radiocarbon provides dates in calendar years, partly on the basis of precise correlations obtained by the radiocarbon dating of Bristlecone Pine samples from the White Mountains that have been dated independently by dendrochronology (tree-ring dating).
A second commonly used dating technique is obsidian hydration . Less accurate than those provided by radiocarbon, obsidian hydration dates are obtained by microscopic examination of small slices of obsidian — a natural volcanic glass widely used for tools by native groups — to determine the amount of moisture absorbed since the glass was first exposed to the atmosphere. Slices taken from artifacts made of this glass indicate when the tool was fashioned, this being the point at which the tool surface was first exposed to atmospheric moisture. Obsidian hydration also provides dates in calendar years.
The third, and by far the most common, method for dating sites in the White Mountains is by the presence of certain artifact forms known to have been popular only during limited periods of time, thus identifying the assemblages with which they are found as belonging to that period. Projectile points — the broader term that subsumes both the smaller arrow points and the larger points used on darts cast by means of a spear thrower (atlatl ) — are the most important of these time-sensitive artifacts. Projectile points distinctive of specific periods of prehistory in the White Mountains are illustrated in Fig. 13.8. In this figure, the appearance of the bow and arrow at about A.D. 600 is reflected by the shift to smaller projectile points
(arrowheads). Prior to this time the major hunting implement was the atlatl , or spear thrower, which cast a heavier dart, tipped by a heavier point (Fig. 13.9).
Archaeological Settlements in the White Mountains
Archaeological research in the White Mountains is still in its infancy, but the work that has been done is sufficient to indicate the broad outline of prehistoric land use and to define the major kinds of sites that are present. We currently divide these sites into three major categories: Pinyon camps, hunting stations, and alpine villages. Pinyon camps are already familiar to us from the discussion of the Paiute. The other two are not.
Pinyon camps. As the name indicates, Pinyon camps are the archaeological equivalents of the camps occupied by the historic Paiute for the fall Pinyon harvest and for winter residence in the mountains near nut caches when the nut crop was large. Excavation at such sites has revealed the charred stubs of structural beams set in circles, reflecting the presence of conical houses, and in ovals, reflecting gabled houses. Simple firepits, generally set to one side of the doorway — which probably served also as a
smokehole — characterize both kinds of houses. The remains of cone roasting hearths, full of burnt cones and pine nut hulls, are common, many placed in the depressions of abandoned houses. Circular alignments of stones — rock rings — between 2 and 4 m in diameter are very common at these sites; excavation has shown them to be essentially barren of artifacts and without firepits, all of which suggests they are the remains of pinecone caches. Other features regularly encountered at these sites are large, dug out basins and rock dams thrown across small, well-shaded ravines. Evidently these were built as places in which to store snow for use as drinking water — a reminder that most of these camps are far from the nearest water source and that their prolonged occupation was generally possible only after the first major snowfall of the season.
Artifacts found at Pinyon camps include projectile points, knives, scrapers of various sizes, point and knife blanks, and manos and metates . The points and knives indicate the use of these sites as bases for hunting operations, the scrapers (most of them probably for woodworking) and, again, the knives indicate the manufacture of wooden implements and basketry, and the milling equipment indicates both the processing of pine nuts and the preparation of food. The roasting hearths and cone caches are further evidence of Pinyon exploitation.
In sum, archaeological Pinyon camps contain a range of features and artifacts that corresponds almost exactly to what would have been left behind at a Pinyon camp occupied by the Paiute. On this basis, it is believed that these sites were occupied in the fall for the Pinyon harvest and in the winter when the nut crop was suitably large. Both the numbers of dwellings present at these sites and historic records of Paiute Pinyon camps suggest that the resident group consisted of perhaps 1 to 10 families, each living in a separate structure.
Because archaeological Pinyon camps are presumed to be equivalent to Paiute Pinyon camps, being used in the same seasons and for the same purposes, and since Paiute use of the White Mountains was of a sort that would leave only Pinyon camps as recognizable archaeological remains (the brief trips by Paiute hunters during the summer would produce little visible evidence), it follows that to date Pinyon
camps in the White Mountains is to date the antiquity of this aspect of Paiute land use in this range. Radiocarbon dates on house beams, obsidian hydration dates on stone tools, and time-sensitive projectile points all suggest that the use of these Pinyon camps began around A.D. 600. Thus, the fall-winter use of White Mountain Pinyon Pine zone by the Paiute was part of a pattern that began some 1,400 years ago and ended only with the collapse of Paiute culture at the hands of Euro-Americans.
The remaining two settlement categories that have been found in the White Mountains have no analogue in the Paiute annual round and thus reflect patterns distinct from the Paiute adaptation as we know it from historic accounts.
Hunting stations. Hunting stations are perhaps the most widespread and numerous archaeological sites found in the White Mountains. They occur in all major biotic communities within the range, extending from the lower skirts of the Pinyon Pine Woodland to the highest reaches of the Alpine Tundra. The lack of association with any specific plant resource or with locations that provide special access to plants is an important clue to their function and suggests they were intended for some purpose other than plant procurement. Additional evidence provided by the locations of these sites is their consistent association with certain landforms. Many of them are found on saddles, along ridgetops, on hillsides or in rocky outcrops overlooking springs and meadows, and at narrow defiles where two drainage channels join together. Common to all these and other locations in which hunting stations are found is the opportunity for concealment in an area frequented by mountain ungulates — deer and Mountain Sheep.
From their locations alone, then, we might surmise that the primary connection of these sites is with hunting. Their assemblages support this notion. The only constructions of any sort are hunting blinds, low breastworks of stone just large enough to conceal a hunter. Commonly, these are not positioned directly on the paths traveled by game but along the routes they would have used for escape. This implies hunting by teams, with one hunter assigned the task of ambush and one or more others the task of lying in wait along flight paths. This effective tactic takes advantage of the tendency displayed by both sheep and deer to pause after initial flight, commonly in predictable locations, and glance back toward the point where they were surprised. At just this moment, their attention directed elsewhere, they are particularly vulnerable to a well-cast dart or arrow.
Individual hunting stations commonly consist of several hunting blinds, scattered among which is the artifactural debris from past hunts. Projectile points — many of them broken, but surprisingly many still complete and evidently usable — are present, as are broken and worn butchering tools. Large quartz crystals, probably hunting talismans, are also occasionally found.
Unlike Pinyon camps, hunting camps exhibit no evidence of attempts to construct shelter and little suggestion of activities other than those directly related to hunting and butchering. There is, for instance, no indication of tools for food preparation nor any appreciable workshop debris to document the manufacture of wood or stone tools. Stonework seems to have been limited to resharpening of butchering tools that had broken or become dull.
To date, what limited excavation has been done at these sites has not added to the preceding interpretation; subsurface remains duplicate those found on the surface, consisting mostly of points, knives, and debris from tool resharpening.
That these sites were used exclusively for hunting and butchering, then, seems clear. The form of this hunting, however, appears to differ on several counts from that documented for the Paiute in the White Mountains. First, only the lowermost of these locales — those in the Pinyon Woodland — would be close enough to valley floor base camps and Pinyon camps to permit trips to and from them daily, which is the common manner of Paiute hunting. Those above the upper Sagebrush Scrub plant community are too remote to permit this; to use them would require overnight camps, which is not typical of Paiute hunting. Second, the carefully constructed hunting blinds and artifact litter show that such trips were regularly undertaken by organized hunting parties. This is difficult to reconcile with the Paiute annual round, in which families camped and circulated independently, making it difficult to undertake cooperative ventures, especially since movement centered around the demands of plant procurement.
This implies that these hunting camps were elements of an adaptive system different from that of the Paiute — one in which hunting was more important, at least enough to justify long trips for upland game and to adjust plant collecting to allow several families to join this activity.
Despite its increased importance, this upland hunting was never a lengthy affair. Had these trips lasted very long, it is unlikely that so many complete points would be found at these sites. Given enough time, hunters would no doubt have retrieved these pieces and reworked them to replace those lost or broken. Their presence suggests brief forays during which time was too short to be wasted on tool repair or an extensive search for lost pieces. In all likelihood, hunters carried enough ready-made darts and points to serve their needs, and when one was lost or smashed on a rock, it was simply replaced with another.
The brevity of these trips is understandable since these fast-traveling hunters, anticipating a return trip packing meat, carried few items to make their stay more comfortable or to afford protection from the incessant winds and nightly chill of the highlands. The lack of oxygen and difficulty of exertion that especially afflict newcomers to altitude would have compounded the discomfort of these lowland peoples and added incentive to finish their business with dispatch.
The points that these hunters so considerately left behind for the archaeologist provide the primary means for dating these stations. Only a few obsidian hydration dates are available. The points indicate that these sites were in use by at least 2500 B.C.; they ceased to be used by A.D. 600. Suspicions about the differences between the hunting pattern reflected by these sites and the one noted in ethnographic accounts of the Paiute are confirmed by the absence at these sites of the point styles known to have been used by the Paiute.
The differences in timespan between Pinyon camps and hunting stations suggest a major shift in land use patterns in the White Mountains and, by extension, throughout central eastern California. Before A.D. 600, large game was more important
and plant foods — both those of the lowlands and the pine nut — were less important than in later times. There is further the suggestion in the nature of earlier hunting patterns that social fragmentation — the division into independent families — was less pronounced, which made it possible to mount cooperative hunting ventures on a regular basis. This adaptive shift is underscored by the third major category of archaeological sites found in the White Mountains, the alpine village, which ranks as the most unusual and unexpected of all the sites in this range.
Alpine villages. Until relatively recently, the prevailing view was that aboriginal land use above the Pinyon Woodland was limited to hunting. The basis for this inference was both empirical (there was no evidence of other kinds of activities) and logical (resources other than animals are limited in number and kind, and living conditions are rigorous). Additionally, these uplands are far removed from the lowlands, preventing the use of that much more productive area. For all these reasons, the possibility of aboriginal villages at high altitudes had been given no serious consideration among archaeologists working in western North America. It came as a major surprise, therefore, when such sites were found — not just one but several, and in two different mountain ranges within the Great Basin: the Toquima Range, in central Nevada, and the White Mountains. The White Mountains exhibit this pattern best, and it is the sites in this range with which we shall deal exclusively.
So far 11 alpine villages have been found at elevations between 10,400 ft (3,170 m) and 12,640 ft (3,850 m) in the White Mountains. The specific locations of these sites are of little importance; their general location, however, near permanent water sources and on the edges of wet meadows, is of some significance in its implications of prolonged use, for which water is essential, and exploitation of highland plants growing in these meadows.
The assemblages found at these sites are quite different from those of hunting stations. Each village exhibits one to eight dwellings. Excavations suggest these are semisubterranean pit houses with low rock walls and limb and bough roofs supported by four or more upright beams set inside the wall, joined by horizontal stringers or rafters (Fig. 13.10). The roofing limbs are thought to have leaned inward from the low wall to these rafters. The houses exhibit large central firepits lined with stone — probably to conserve fuel, as the rocks would continue to radiate heat long after a fire built within them had gone out.
In contrast to houses at Pinyon camps and at villages on the valley floor, which were primarily used as sleeping quarters, the alpine village dwellings contain evidence of many activities, including stone working. Evidently much work was done indoors to escape the wind and the cold. Points attest to hunting — which, as at Pinyon camps, was carried out from these settlements, and not from separate hunting camps. Knives, drills, and blanks for making points and knives suggest a wide range of specific activities, including butchering, tool repair, and tool replacement. Broken points discarded in these structures commonly show abortive attempts at resharpening. This attests to extended periods of use during which the inhabitants were unable to obtain fresh supplies of raw materials and were forced to use what they had brought to the
fullest, scavenging the hillsides in search of lost pieces that might be repaired. This is in marked contrast to the more casual pattern of discard noted at hunting stations, the occupants of which invested most of their time in hunting, not tool repair.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of these alpine village assemblages, however, is the presence of grinding tools. There are far more of these than would be needed to prepare what little plant food could have been brought to these sites from camps below. The numbers in which they are found ensures they were used to process local plant foods, most notably roots — charred specimens of which have been recovered from the central hearths of the dwellings; these have been tentatively identified as Bitterroot (Lewisia pygmaea ). Pine nuts, principally of Limber Pine (P. flexilis ), which is available within a short distance of these sites, and, in smaller quantity, Pinyon Pine (which must have been imported), have also been recovered from these hearths. It is likely that local grasses and berries were also collected, but work so far has not revealed them.
The intensity of plant collecting is underscored by vast quantities of broken and battered cobble tools with steep working edges, thought to have been used to shred and pulp rootstalks prior to final grinding. These battered cobbles litter the surfaces of alpine villages in great profusion.
Such evidence of plant procurement is a major discovery given the long-standing belief that the harshness of the alpine climate and scarcity of alpine plants would preclude such an exploitative pattern — a view, incidentally, supported by ethnographic accounts, which make no mention of it.
On the basis of these various lines of evidence, we now believe that these alpine villages were occupied by groups of families, probably three to five of them, for extended periods beginning about mid-June and ending sometime in late August or
early September. This is the only period during which plant resources are present in any quantity and the weather — though still uncomfortable — is relatively tolerable.
Both plant and animal procurement were intensively pursued. The plants were readily available in the meadows near the villages. Since these habitats are spacially restricted and isolated from each other, it is likely that women engaged in root or seed collection stayed relatively close to home. It may well be that they devoted as much time to the pounding, parching, and grinding of plant foods as to their collection.
Hunting was another matter. The placement of the alpine villages in meadows that had formerly been frequented by sheep and deer no doubt disrupted the movements and distribution of these species, causing them to seek refuge in more inaccessible places and perhaps to move around more to find new rangelands to replace those lost with the establishment of the alpine villages. Because of this, hunters would have had to travel to be successful. Very likely, they worked alone and — rather than hunt by ambush from blinds — kept on the move in order to locate herds, the daily whereabouts of which had become less predictable with their dislocation from traditional feeding grounds. This pattern stands in sharp contrast to earlier hunting patterns, in which groups of hunters stationed themselves along traditional game trails and waited for the game to come to them. Because the alpine villages afforded shelter and other conveniences and were relatively close at hand, it is likely that hunters returned to them nightly, carrying with them the take of that day — unbutchered or perhaps gutted and field-dressed. Marmots, ground squirrels, and White-tailed Jackrabbits may have been occasionally taken as secondary targets by hunters not fortunate enough to capture a sheep or deer; more of these smaller prey, however, were probably taken by snares set near the village and checked daily by those returning from hunts or by children or women who stayed near the village and counted the maintenance of a trap line as a normal part of camp chores.
Alpine hunting ceases to be productive with the first major storm in the fall, which, whether it brings snow or not, drives animals from their summer range along migration routes to the lower winter rangeland. By the time this occurs, nearly all alpine plants are past the point where their exploitation is worthwhile. It seems unlikely, therefore, that alpine villages where inhabited later than this. The occupants of these sites probably remained until Limber Pine nuts could be harvested in late summer and, this done, simply moved downslope into the Pinyon Woodland to undertake the fall Pinyon Pine harvest.
The alpine villages, as suggested by the time-sensitive artifacts form they contain, are dated between A.D. 600 and historic times. That the use of these sites persisted into early historic times is shown by the presence of historic glass beads at several sites. It is curious, therefore, that there is no mention of such villages in historic accounts. The most reasonable explanation is that, unlike Pinyon Pine camps in the White Mountains and lowland villages such as those that existed near the modern towns of Bishop and Big Pine, alpine villages ceased to be used almost immediately after contact. This idea is consistent with our present interpretation of the alpine
village pattern and of its implications for late prehistoric human ecology in the White Mountains.
Fundamental to this interpretation is the observation that the alpine environment has always been marginal as a habitat for human use. Its best resources are game, and even they are difficult to exploit here. Plant resources are very sparse in comparison to those at lower elevations, and their exploitation under the best of circumstances could never have been much more than a "break-even" proposition; that is, the best that could be expected was to collect enough plants to supply daily needs, with a little left over to be set aside for winter use. In addition to this, the living conditions are miserable at these altitudes: it is cold and windy, there are violent hailstorms — even snowstorms — throughout the summer, and above 11,000 ft (3,350 m) there is little firewood. In addition to this, the lack of oxygen makes normal exertion difficult and causes various other physiological maladies. All these characteristics would seem to make the alpine environment less desirable as a base for summertime activity than the lowlands, where — although game is scarce in this season — plants are available in comparative profusion, oxygen, of course, is in good supply, and warm temperatures mean that only a little shade is needed to make life comfortable.
With so many apparently undesirable qualities in terms of resources available, the difficulty of their procurement, and the elaborate facilities needed as shelter if they were to be procured, the question naturally arises as to why alpine villages were used at all. It seems that the logical choice for aboriginal groups would have been to remain in the lowlands and gather plants there. Our current solution to this puzzle is that the appearance of alpine villages around A.D. 600 marks the point at which native populations had grown so large and had so pressured the resources available in the lowlands that groups could expect to do as well in the Alpine Zone, where they could hunt and gather in relative isolation, as they could in the lowlands, where they would have to compete with many other families for a dwindling set of plants and animals.
The White Mountains, then, are a sort of resource "pressure gauge." When, in central eastern California, aboriginal populations were relatively sparse and pressure on resources relatively low, only the best of the alpine resources — the large game — were exploited, and this exploitation was relatively brief, confined to short hunting trips. This is the early hunting pattern evident at hunting stations occupied between about 2500 B.C. and A.D. 600. When, on the other hand, the population was large, the pressure on resources was relatively high, and, as a consequence, alpine resources were used intensively; this use extended not only to the best resources (game) but also included less desirable ones that took longer to gather and process (roots and seeds). At the same time, the duration of this exploitation increased from a few days to several weeks.
This interpretation can be made more general in two senses. First, because we know from other evidence that humans have been in eastern California for about 10,000 years, the fact that there is no evidence of alpine land use until 2500 B.C. suggests that before then populations must have been at even lower resource levels — low
enough that there was no need to track sheep and deer into their rugged summer rangelands, and certainly no need to contemplate the exploitation of plants in these habitats. The appearance of hunting stations in the White Mountains at 2500 B.C., then, is the first indication of any sort of resource pressure in central eastern California. If this line of reasoning is valid, populations must have continued to grow between 2500 B.C. and A.D. 600, for at the latter date two new settlement types appeared, each connected with upland plant resources: the Pinyon camp and the alpine village. The more intensive use of the uplands evident at these sites must reflect pressure on lowland resources that until then had been used to the exclusion of these mountain plants.
The second implication of this explanation is that around 1850, when the alpine villages were abandoned, something must have relieved the pressure on lowland resources. There is hardly any need to speculate what the source of that "relief" was.
Joseph Reddeford Walker entered Owens Valley in 1834. By 1861, the first permanent white settlement was established in Owens Valley. Disease and warfare followed, each taking its toll on the native population. At the same time, with the establishment of farms and ranches, alternative opportunities for native employment drew many from traditional hunting and gathering, further reducing pressure on natural resources. Thus, the abandonment of the alpine villages shortly after contact bears undeniable testimony to the disruption of the native system by forces outside that system. It may be that life in the alpine village was so unpalatable that they were abandoned without regret. Yet, whatever their hardships, in the broader context their abandonment meant the end of the native system in its entirety. It can hardly be argued that this colossal forfeiture was reasonably compensated simply because it carried the opportunity to spend the summer where it was warm rather than where it was cold.