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Native Land Use: Archaeology and Anthropology

Robert L. Bettinger

When in 1834 the trapping party of Joseph Reddeford Walker trekked east across the Sierra Nevada and entered Owens Valley, becoming the first white men ever to set eyes on the White Mountains, the range was already well used — tracked with the paths, dotted with the camps, and littered with the debris of 10,000 years of human occupancy. The native groups in residence on Walker's arrival were only the areas most recent occupants, followers of a long procession of earlier cultures. Tragically, they were to be the last in that procession. Their existence was terminated by forces set in motion with the coming of the Walker party, who gave them little notice and squandered the singular opportunity to observe this native eastern California culture in its pristine form.

It is unfortunate that we know so little about the peoples the Walker party passed amidst during the trip north though Owens Valley in 1834–1835. A complete record would have provided key information to aid in understanding the entire history of native land use in this region. However, Walker and his men, conditioned by constant skirmishes with mounted natives during their trapping expeditions in the Rocky Mountains, regarded the American Indian with ignorance and suspicion. Indeed, this very same party had already slain some 40 members of a large group of Northern Paiute assembled on the lower Humboldt Sink. It was an unprovoked — though in their eyes justified — preemptive strike, a single volley that set the tone for all subsequent relations between whites and native inhabitants of the Great Basin.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the written account of the native peoples of eastern California met by the Walker party, set down by one of its members, Zenas Leonard, is brief and biased. Subsequent descriptions, which increase in number as Owens Valley and surrounding areas were settled in the early 1860s, are written in the perspective of those with vested interest in justifying the displacement of native groups from lands to which their claim by traditional possession was beyond dispute. The view they present is colored accordingly, and it is commonly difficult to distinguish fact from folklore.

It was not until the 1920s that a deliberate attempt was made by trained anthropologists to investigate and document the culture of the various aboriginal groups that lived at the foot of the White Mountains. However, by this time the pathetic battles had all been fought, the diseases had run their course, the major villages had been abandoned, and native lifeways existed only in the memories of the few aged individuals born long before the first white settlement was built in Owens Valley.


Whatever their flaws, the early anecdotal accounts and the systematic records made much later by trained observers can be pieced into a picture of aboriginal culture in and around the White Mountains on the eve of the Walker expedition. Archaeological evidence makes it possible to extend this view several thousand years into the past, to the first entry of people to eastern California.

It is fortunate, given the purpose of this volume, that the pattern of life of these pedestrian hunter-gatherers, without metal tools or benefit of domesticated plants, is best understood in terms of the exigencies of making a living by the judicious use of native plants and animals. The greater part of the activities and movements of these peoples were dictated by the rhythm of seasons and by the life cycles of native flora and fauna. This is by no means all there is to native culture, but it is the part that is best known and that is emphasized here.

The Paiute

In ethnographic times, that period for which first-hand observations exist, the White Mountains were regarded as the territory of three different aboriginal groups, each of which resided most of the year in the lowlands below this range (Fig. 13.1). By convention, all three groups are designated Paiute , although they referred to themselves simply as Numu , "the people," and their neighbors knew them by different names according to their own tongues.

The entire western drainage of the White Mountains was traditionally used by the Owens Valley Paiute, the eastern drainage by the Fish Lake Valley Paiute, and the southern drainage — that part emptying into Deep Springs Valley — by the Deep Springs Valley Paiute. All three groups spoke varying dialects of a language known as Mono, one of six languages in the larger Numic language group. The collective speakers of the Numic language account for virtually all of the native peoples living in the Great Basin — from the Sierra Nevada in the west to the Wasatch Mountains of Utah in the east, and from Death Valley in the south to the Snake River Plains, Idaho, in the north.

There were distinguishable differences among the Owens Valley, Fish Lake Valley, and Deep Springs Valley Paiute, but in a broad sense they made use of the same technology and their adaptations were of similar kind, especially with respect to the use of the natural resources of the White Mountains, which is of principal concern here.


Technology — the tools, implements, and facilities used to gather plants, take game, make tools, and provide shelter from the elements — was relatively simple, though nor unsophisticated.

The more substantial dwellings were built at important, long-term settlements. In the lowlands these were circular, domed willow pole frameworks thatched with


Figure 13.1
Distribution of ethnographic groups using the White-Inyo
Range at the time of Euro-American contact.

Tule or Bulrush (Scirpus spp.) or grasses (esp. Elymus spp.) (Fig. 13.2). In the White Mountains, with the different materials at hand, houses were conical or oblong gabled affairs (Fig. 13.3) made with Pinyon Pine (Pinus monophylla ) or Utah Juniper (Juniperus osteosperma ) limbs and covered with fresh pine boughs or pine duff.

Both lowland and upland houses were furnished with fireplaces, principally for warmth. Most cooking was done outside or in a structure similar in construction to dwellings and built especially for that purpose.

Settlements used for shorter periods, less than a month or so, were generally furnished only with low, circular brush enclosures or windbreaks. There might be one for each family — each with its own hearth — or a single, large one for several families, within which each family used and maintained a separate fireplace for cooking and heating. Such brush "surrounds" where also built at more permanent settlements, for cooking or sleeping in warm weather.


Figure 13.2
Tule-thatched house used in the lowlands. Here smoke exits from doorway
on opposite side. Houses of this type were between 5 and 7 m in diameter.

Figure 13.3
Cutaway view showing interior of gabled log house used in the Pinyon Woodland.
Such houses were between 4 and 8 m in length.


Hunters unable to return to their base camps at night often built little or no shelter and kept themselves warm by means of a small fire built in the open, although they might seek the cover of rock ledges or cave mouths in inclement weather.

Virtually all containers were of basketry, which in both durability and weight suited the needs of peoples often on the move. Among the most important of these wares (Fig. 13.4) were the large, conical carrying baskets fitted with tumplines, pitch-covered or lined water jugs, storage baskets, plaque-like serving trays, and cooking vessels, the contents of which were heated by means of hot rocks. Small quantities of pottery vessels (Fig. 13.5), made of clay from weathered granitic outcrops and fashioned in coils laid one atop another and then scraped smooth, were also used

Figure 13.4
Various basket forms used as utensils. (a) Conical carrying basketry with
tumpline. (b) Pitch-lined water jug with carrying strap. (c) Seed beater. (d)
Triangular winnowing tray.


Figure 13.5
Conical ceramic cooking vessel.

as cooking vessels. An advantage of such vessels was that their contents — generally mixed stews of seed mush and meat — could be cooked directly over a fire.

The stone mano (Fig. 13.6a ), a small bun-shaped implement with a flat or rounded grinding face, was held by hand (hence its name, the Spanish word for "hand") and worked over a large millingstone (metate , Fig. 13.6b ). The flat or basin-shaped surface of the metate served to render seeds into flour, which could be eaten as paste or cooked into mush.


With the exception of a few resources that were taken cooperatively, the procurement of plants and animals was performed by individuals working entirely in isolation, or singly but in the company of a few others engaged in the same task, and was

Figure 13.6
Stone grinding implements used in the preparation of plant foods.
(a) Handstone or mano . (b) Millingstone or metate .


more or less strictly divided along the lines of sex: plant collection was generally the responsibility of women, animal procurement the responsibility of men. The gear used by men and women differed accordingly.

Plant procurement. Many plant foods could simply be picked by hand: succulent sprouts and shoots, leafy greens, and some berries and seeds. The bulk of plant collection, however, entailed the use of two tools: the seed beater, generally used in conjunction with a collecting tray, and the digging stick. The basketry seed beater (see Fig. 13.4c ), similar in construction to but slightly smaller than a tennis racquet, was used to strike ripened seeds from their stalks directly into the conical carrying basket or into a shallow, triangular collecting tray (see Fig. 13.4d ). The latter also served in the winnowing and parching of seeds. The digging stick, generally about a meter long, sharpened and fire-hardened at one end, was used primarily to excavate roots and bulbs, but it also served to probe for and expose caches to roots and seeds stored by rodents.

When traveling in the field, women commonly carried with them basketry repair kits — foreshortened versions of more elaborate gear used at home — which included a cactus spine awl, willow splints for material, and a small, sharp flake of stone to cut and shape the willow splints. A woman also might equip herself with a stone knife hafted in wood (Fig. 13.7a ), which both at home and in the field was used as a general-purpose tool for cutting, sawing, and scraping wood, fiber, hide, meat, and a variety of other materials.

Plant collecting expeditions were generally conducted within a two-hour walk of the base settlement, either a permanent village or short-term collecting camp. Operation within this restricted area permitted individuals the time to locate promising collecting areas and work them thoroughly and still return to the base camp before nightfall.

Plants were the center of the Paiute adaptation. They furnished fully 70% of the annual dietary intake, and their collection and preparation constantly occupied womenfolk. It was the gathering of plants, not the hunting of animals, that dictated the seasonal movements and the location of settlements for these peoples.

Animal Procurement. The major implements used by men were those of the hunt. These included the sinew-backed bow and arrow. The arrow was compound — fletched

Figure 13.7
Common implements. (a) Hafted stone knife. (b) Composite arrow with stone
point, Greasewood foreshaft, and  Phragmites  mainshaft.


and constructed with a reed (Phragmites communis ) mainshaft, at the front of which was inserted a hardwood foreshaft, generally of Greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus ) (Fig. 13.7b ). The foreshaft might be further modified by the attachment of: (1) a stone point for large game, including deer (Odocoileus hemionus ) and Mountain Sheep (Ovis canadensis spp.); (2) a thick collar of sinew that caused the arrow to bounce along the water, for ducks and geese; (3) a set of four sticks lashed perpendicular to the foreshaft, for such upland birds as quail; or (4) nothing at all, leaving a simple hardened foreshaft for use on small game such as rabbits (Sylvilagus audubonii ).

In addition, hunters generally carried a stone knife for skinning and cutting and an emergency repair kit with replacement stone points and wooden foreshafts. They were also commonly equipped with an antler flaker to resharpen broken points and stone knives dulled through use, and to fashion other implements made of stone for use by both men and women. Production of the latter kind was always done at base camps rather than in the field, where time was limited and attention was on the hunt.

Depending on the kind of expedition being undertaken, men might also carry the trigger mechanisms and trip cords meeded to fashion snares or deadfalls in the field, the intended prey generally being small birds and rodents to supply the hunter with food. Larger snares, however, were also used to immobilize deer or sheep long enough to be dispatched by hunters lying in wait.

Most Paiute hunting excursions were conducted out of the family base camp, with one or two individuals traveling to specific locations where game was known to be present and particularly susceptible to ambush at a given time of day. Because in this kind of hunting the stalk and chase are quickly done, hunters were able to make longer daily trips than women engaged in seed collection. A kill late in the day or the prospect of success at the following daybreak, however, occasionally meant spending the night far from the main camp.

Communal hunts — large, fire-aided deer drives undertaken by as many as 100 assembled men, and fall antelope and jackrabbit drives engaging the combined efforts of men, women, and children — were alternative forms of animal capture, but they were periodic in occurrence and a substantial departure from the daily pattern. Overall, hunting provided no more than about 30% of annual dietary intake, and the gopher, mouse, wood rat, and rabbit were more common on the menu than the deer, Mountain Sheep, and antelope.

Pinyon procurement . All of the subsistence activities described so far, whether pertaining to plants or to animals, are generalized in the sense that they embrace broad classes of resources rather than one species. The seed beater could be used for no less than 50 individual species of grasses and berries, the bow and arrow for perhaps half as many animals. This offered both hunter and gatherer a wide range of resources of which only the most choice would be sought on any given foray. This wide selection is a reflection that none of these resources was productive and reliable enough to merit special attention.


The nut of the Pinyon Pine (Pinus monophylla ) stands in marked contrast to all other resources, for it was available in large quantities with some degree of frequency. As a result, a specialized procurement system developed around this one plant. Because there are extensive Pinyon Pine groves in the White Mountains, a substantial proportion of aboriginal activity in this range, prehistoric and historic, centered around this specialized system, which is worth describing in some detail.

The nut of the Pinyon Pine was the single most important food resource in the dietary regimen of the Paiute of Deep Springs, Fish Lake, and Owens valleys. For all three, the major groves were in the White Mountains at elevations between 6560 ft (2,000 m) and 8,528 ft (2,600 m). In the event these groves failed, which was common, there were alternative groves in the Silver Peak Range, east of Fish Lake Valley; in the Benton Range and Glass Mountain Ridge, north of Owens Valley; in the Inyo Mountains, south of the White Mountains; and in the Sierra Nevada, west of Owens Valley.

Pine cones develop and mature over a two-year period, during which they may be lost to drought, wind, frost, or insect infestation. This fragility stretched over a two-year span explains the frequent failure of individual groves to produce any crop at all, which in turn was responsible for much aboriginal movement, commonly over long distances, to find productive groves.

The nut enclosed within the cone ripens by early fall, when the cone is still green and thickly covered with pitch. It was at this time that native groups, commonly entire bands or villages, would move from the lowland summer camps or villages to the lower margin of the Pinyon Woodland. Here they established base camps for the Pinyon Pine harvest, generally on ridges and saddles, where the ground was relatively flat. The size of the crop was readily evident even by casual inspection. If it were large, gabled or conical long dwellings — usually one to a family with a separate cookhouse — were constructed in anticipation of winter residence in these locations. If the crop were judged too small to sustain extended winter occupation, only temporary shelters were made, and with the close of the harvest the site was vacated in favor of a lowland village. Upon departure, that part of the crop that could be transported was taken along and the balance cached for a later trip.

Owing to its importance in the winter diet, all possible measures were taken to maximize the nut harvest. The most crucial step in this regard was the initiation of the harvest while the cones were still green, pitch-covered, tightly closed, and, therefore, relatively inaccessible to the birds and rodents that competed for them. Cones left on the tree until brown and dry are more easily handled and their nuts more easily freed, but this shortens the harvest and brings heavy losses through animal depredation. The Paiute, who were so dependent on the pine nut, therefore undertook the more arduous green cone harvest.

The basic gathering party was the nuclear family. The father, equipped with a long, hooked pole, shook cones loose from the higher limbs. The mother worked the lower limbs by hand or hook, and the children gathered fallen cones and climbed through the lower limbs to shake out the more tenacious ones. The gathering occupied the


first half of the day. The second half was devoted to roasting the green cones. A nest of brush was set afire and its smoldering embers heaped over the cones. This burned away most of the pitch, dried the cones, and caused the cone scales to open, duplicating the natural aging that occurs in cones left to brown on the tree. Roasted cones were raked from the embers and, while still hot, struck with a stone hammer on a stone anvil. The nuts were then shaken and pried from the cones. The nuts were then parched with coals on a basketry tray, shelled with the mano and metate , parched (toasted) again, and then ground into meal.

During the best years, when the slow roasting and shelling process could not keep pace with the flow of the harvest, green cones were stored in grass-lined pits and covered with grass, boughs, and stones. Free nuts were stored similarly.

The Pinyon Pine harvest was a microcosm of Paiute subsistence in two respects. First, it illustrates the complex, time-consuming, and difficult processing attached to the collection, preparation, and storage of nearly all plant foods, which were the mainstays of subsistence. Second, and perhaps less obvious, the heavy investment of time in the Pinyon Pine harvest was primarily a consequence of the importance of the pine nut in the Paiute diet. Lesser reliance on pine nuts would have enabled the Paiute to collect only the ripe, brown cones and forgo the extra effort involved in roasting the green cones. At work here is the general principle of diminishing returns: the greater the quantity exploited, the greater the cost per individual item (cone, root, seed, or animal). Take the familiar activity of apple picking, for example. One or two apples (say, to snack on) can be obtained quickly and effortlessly from the lower branches of a tree. If, on the other hand, one required two or three lugs (boxes) of apples (say, for canning) from that same tree, the average time spent obtaining each individual fruit would almost certainly go up because apples from higher, less accessible branches would be needed to fill the boxes, and it would take more time and effort to get them. One might even be forced to pick smaller apples, and this too would increase the amount of time needed to fill the boxes. To obtain 10 lugs of apples from the tree would doubtless require an even greater average expenditure of time and effort per individual fruit. It might, for instance, demand that a ladder be made, the cost and effort of which would have to be added to the cost directly associated with the job of apple picking.

In the case of the Paiute, the cost per kilo of pine nuts was high because it was important in the diet and exploited in large quantities. In a broader sense, the difficult and time-consuming labor associated with the procurement of nearly all of the plants and animals used by the Paiute is a reflection that, relative to the resources available, the population had by late prehistoric times grown quite large. This is a point that figures prominently in the prehistory of the White Mountains.

The Annual Round

The preceding discussion centers on the various parts of aboriginal Paiute life: the technology, the resources exploited by means of that technology, and the tactics of that exploitation. Underlying these, however, was a general strategy that linked all


these parts into a coherent whole, balancing resources and activities to maximize the economic return for the labor expended, and distributing people over the landscape in a way that made this mix possible.

This strategy is termed the annual round , and its fundamental basis was the distribution and seasonal availability of various plant and animal resources. Much more than this was revolved, however, because out of the more than 100 plant and animal species exploited, several were generally available at the same time, commonly in different places. Choices had to be made, therefore, as to which should be taken and which ignored. Time and location were critical considerations. Many summer grasses, for example, ripen and disperse their seeds within a very narrow "window" of time — often as little as a week. Even a day's tardiness in reaching such plants could reduce the potential harvest by as much as one-third. There was, too, the element of location. Between two resources, exploiting the most productive one might leave a group poorly positioned for subsequent resource collection whereas pursuing the less productive one might fit better with the larger pattern of movements and, in the long run, represent the more economical option.

Complexities inherent in these decisions were exacerbated by circumstances of the moment: a chance thunderstorm that filled a dry basin with a shallow lake teeming with Fairy Shrimp, or a rocky cleft with sufficient water to supply a collecting expedition in an area normally too far from water to be exploited; an unusual concentration of edible insects; an abundance of bulb-bearing plants; or a windstorm that scattered seeds that would normally have been gathered.

All of these conditions defied solution according to rigid timetables and unvarying schedules and yielded only to a flexible pattern in which the general structure — the annual round — was determined but the details varied from year to year, season to season, and moment to moment. Two basic rules prevailed: (1) Seasonal resources were exploited in preference to nonseasonal resources. (2) Plant foods rather than animal foods dictated movements and activities.

It is only in reference to this larger context that aboriginal land use of the White Mountains can be properly understood. The White Mountains were but one small aspect of the Paiute annual round, and the decision to use their resources was always balanced against what was available elsewhere — especially in the lowlands, where travel was easier and, as a consequence, most activities tended to concentrate.

A brief sketch of the Paiute annual round, therefore, begins with the observation that most of the year was spent in the lowlands below the White Mountains. The gathering year began with the appearance of edible roots and greens, the first fresh food after a winter of stored food. Because spring comes earlier at low elevations, most groups worked the valley floors at this time, moving there from upland villages if they had spent the winter in the mountains. By late spring, attention turned to seed plants, which reached peak abundance both in number of species and quantity of crop in midsummer. Because plants in dry habitats generally ripen earlier than those in wet ones, summer resource exploitation required a balance between availability of food resources and access to water. Because stored summer plants were an essential part of the winter diet, the prospective location of winter camps, from which food


caches had to be accessible, also figured prominently in the location of summer plant procurement.

In the late summer and early fall, attention turned first to wetland plants and then to the critical fall Pinyon Pine harvest. It was also in this season that annual festivals were held, generally in conjunction with antelope or rabbit drives, which could sustain a large group without unduly straining the winter stores of the host band or village. At this time of maximum social aggregation, new social ties were established and old ones strengthened. Plans for the future were made and publicized. It would be easy to mistake this socializing as nothing more than indulgence in the pleasure of company, but it had a more serious aspect: It was an essential ingredient of efficient resource exploitation that reduced the possibility of two families by chance disrupting each other's collecting round by targeting the same set of resources in the same general area. Further, it facilitated the planning of undertakings that required the cooperation of more than one family. Following the festival, groups returned to their winter camp — in the Pinyon Woodland if the nut crop had been large, or in the lowlands if it had been small. In these camps the winter was waited out, the time filled with the repair and manufacture of equipment and the recounting of ancient story cycles that explained the origin of the world and described the role of the Paiute in the deeper scheme of things.

We can underscore the relationship of the White Mountains to the Paiute annual round by noting that only two resources present in this range figured prominently in that system: the pine nut and large game — Mountain Sheep, deer, and possibly antelope. Stated another way, in terms of food return for unit of labor expended, out of all the natural resources potentially available in these uplands, only the pine nut and large game compared favorably with the lowland resources routinely exploited by the Paiute.

Hunters worked into the lower parts of the White Mountains on a daily basis when their family camps were located sufficiently nearby and game was in residence there — principally in the summer, when most herds grazed at elevations well above their low winter rangelands. The most intensive activity, however, was in the fall, when the Owens Valley Paiute, Deep Springs Valley Paiute, and Fish Lake Valley Paiute gathered, processed, and stored pine nuts in the extensive Pinyon Pine groves of this range, commonly remaining there until the following spring, provided the pine nut take was sufficiently large. Hunters also worked out of these fall and winter Pinyon camps, although they were far more successful in the fall, when herds, fat from summer grazing and their coats in peak condition, funneled out of the highlands along established migration routes. Later in winter, travel was more difficult for hunting parties and game was in poorer condition owing to lack of feed.

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


Figure 13.8
Projectile points representing different periods of aboriginal
occupation in the White-Inyo Range. (a) 2500 B.C.–1200.
B.C. (b), (c) 1200 B.C. — A.D. 600. (d), (e) A.D. 600–A.D.
1300. (f), (g) A.D. 1300-Euro-American contact. (a)–(c) Dart
points. (d)–(g) Arrow 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


Figure 13.9
Atlatl . (a) Top view. (b) With dart, showing manner of use.

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


Figure 13.10
Cutaway of house form used in alpine villages in the White Mountains.
Houses of this type were between 4 and 6 m in diameter.

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.


Bettinger, Robert L. 1975. The surface archaeology of Owens Valley, eastern California: Prehistoric man-land relationships in the great Basin. Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Riverside.

Bettinger, Robert L. 1976. The development of pinyon exploitation in central eastern California. Journal of California Anthropology 3(1):81–95.

Bettinger, Robert L. 1977. Aboriginal human ecology in Owens Valley, eastern California: Prehistoric change in the Great Basin. American Antiquity 43(1):3–17.

Bettinger, Robert L. 1980. Obsidian hydration dates for Owens Valley settlement categories. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 2(2):286–292.

Chalfant, W. A. 1933. The story of Inyo , 2d ed. Piñon Bookstore, Bishop, Calif.

Harrington, M. R. 1957. A Pinto site at Little Lake, California . Southwest Museum Papers, no. 17, Los Angeles.

Lanning, E. P. 1963. Archaeology of the Rose Spring site, Iny-372. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 49:237–336.

Leonard, Zenas. 1839. Narrative of the adventures of Zenas Leonard, a native of Clearfield County, Pa., who spent five years in trapping for furs, trading with the Indians, & C., & C., of the Rocky Mountains . D. W. Moore, Clearfield, Pa.


Meighan, C. W. 1955. Notes on the archaeology of Mono County, California. University of California Archaeological Survey Reports 28:6–28.

Riddell, H. 1951. Archaeology of a Paiute village site in Owens Valley. University of California Archaeological Survey Reports 12:14–28.

Steward, Julian H. 1933. Ethnography of the Owens Valley Paiute. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 33(3):233–350.

Steward, Julian H. 1934. Two Paiute autobiographies. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 33(5):423–438.


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