Great Basin Cultural Area


The Great Basin is a land of great environmental diversity and dramatic contrasts — high mountains and arid plains, deep canyons and occasional bountiful lakes — comprising some 400,000 square miles between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Rocky Mountains. It includes all of Nevada and Utah, most of western Colorado, portions of southern Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming, as well as southeastern California, and portions of northern Arizona and New Mexico. Elevation is relatively high throughout the Basin: valleys and lesser basins range from 4,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level; mountains range from 6,000 to 12,000 feet. The climate is variable, but in general average summer temperatures are high (often over 100 degrees), winters are cold (temperatures sometimes falling to 20 degrees below zero), lower elevations, evaporative rates are high at lower elevations, and percipitation is low. In addition, the amount of rainfall varies dramatically from year to year. Thus, in one year a potential plant food source can be anywhere from two to six times more plentiful than it was last year; or it can be two to six times less plentiful.

Vegetation varies widely throughout the Basin. The lower slopes of the mountain ranges support sagebrush grasslands, while juniper and pinyon woodlands occur at higher elevations, followed, in turn, by forests of scrub oak, ponderosa pine, aspen, spruce and fir. In the low basins of the Mohave Desert of southern California and Nevada, creosote bush and rabbit bush are the dominant plants, while the high deserts are blanketed with saltbush and sagebrush. Numerous seed-bearing grass species, such as Indian rice grass and wheatgrass, are common in the high desert areas.

Much of the Great Basin is a land of roughly parallel north-to-south trending ranges, each range separated from its neighbors by long desert basins. Since the Great Basin is a province of interior drainage in which the rivers and streams (of which there are relatively few and solely dependent on mountain snows rather than rainfall) all flow down from the surrounding mountains and into the central depression, many of the desert basins (such as Death Valley) were, during the last Ice Age, filled to overflowing by snow meltwater. Many of these Ice Age basins were joined to each other by fish-rich rivers, or linked by green belts of vegetation. And where there is now treeless, arid steppe, woodlands grew and camels, wild horses, and mammoth grazed on open plains and on the fringes of the lakes and great marshes. Then between about 12,500 and 10,600 the lakes shrank, many rivers dried up, and the lusher vegetation retreated northward and to higher elevations. Over the next several thousands of years, the Great Basin became increasingly arid with temperatures rising until about 6,000 to 5,000 years ago, when they stabilized and persisted to modern times.

Historic Overview

The first Europeans to enter the Great Basin encountered only scattered bands of Indians who roamed the land on foot, maintaining a great deal of flexibility and variability in group size, group stability, degree of sedentary settlement, etc., in order to be optimally adapted to the variability and availability of food resources. And because plant resources fluctuated yearly, grew and matured at different times, the Indians were forced to move regularly from zone to zone. However, while no one plant was abundant enough to support a lot of people at any one place at any one time, many species could be eaten, and the people gathered every bit of vegetation: seeds, berries, nuts, leaves, roots, stalks, and bulbs and hunted nearly every type of animal, frommedium sized mammals (such as deer and pronghorn antelope) to rabbits and hares, to reptiles, even insects. And if the archaeological record can be trusted, it seems that this way of life was one with deep roots, extending back to the end of the Last Ice age, more than 10,000 years ago.

The Paleo-Indian Period (before about 10,000 years ago). People have lived in the Great Basin for a very long time. The earliest evidence of occupation has been found along the shorelines of the once extensive system of ancient Ice Age lakes and dates to around 12,000 years ago. These earliest people, the Paleo-Indians, were few in number, highly mobile, and left few traces of their passing. But from the little they did leave behind, it appears that although they were contemporary with the Clovis tradition peoples to the east, they did not follow the Clovis big-game hunting subsistence pattern. Instead, they tended to be more broad and eclectic in their dietary patterns, using a wide range of resources.

The Archaic Period (from about 10,000 years ago to Contact with Europeans). At the end of the Pleistocene, the climate changed from relatively wet and cool to much warmer and drier, leading to the disappearance of most of the lakes and an abandonment of the area by many animal species. People had three choices: following the retreating animals, or attempt to maintain the old ways in the face of declining food resource, or adapt by creating new forms of settlement, subsistence practices and technologies compatible with desert conditions. We know that the latter option was in place by at least 10,000 years ago in northwestern Utah and by at least 9,400 years ago in western Nevada. Abundant milling equipment dating back to 10,000 years ago indicates that by then people were beginning to utilize the abundant hard seeds and nuts found throughout the Great Basin. As the climate continued to warm up and most of the lakes and marshes dried up, Basin groups adopted far more complex settlement patterns that had them making use of semi-permanent winter base camps with basic storage facilities — a pattern that would remain essentially unchanged all the way into the middle of the 19th century.

The Great Basin Archaic is divided into three major time periods:

Early – lasted from about 9,000 to 4,000 years ago. People continued a general hunting and gathering economy, scheduling their movements across the landscape to coincide with the availability of resources. In some regions of the Great Basin, such as around the Great Salt Lake in Utah, people made extensive use of dry cave sites. Such sites remained completely dry until modern times and provide an exceptional record of Archaic life containing, as they do, a wealth of human accumulations: stone and bone artifacts and food remains, objects made of hide, fur, feathers, horn, sinew, grass, wood, bark, even desiccated human feces (which document actual meals eaten thousands of years ago). Some caves even contain human burials which allow scientists to “see” what these earliest inhabitants of the Great Basin look like. For example, from Spirit Cave near Fallon, Nevada, archaeologists recovered a 9,400 year old human burial, a man about 45 years old when he died. Preservation was so exceptional, that the skeleton still had rarely preserved hair and skin. Also preserved were his rabbit fur robe, two shrouds of woven tule reeds, and well-worn moccasins of three kinds of animal hide, sewn with hemp and sinew, and patched on the soles.

A forensic anthropologist’s reconstruction of Spirit Cave Man, based upon the recovered skull.

Middle – from about 4,000 to 1,500 years ago. Climate became cooler and wetter. Some lakes were reestablished, extensive marshlands reappeared, plants and animals returned. There were relatively few technological or subsistence changes, although in some locations people tended towards increasingly diverse exploitation of food resources. Local populations increased and people now tended to repeatedly occupy winter base camps and seasonal resource procurement camps. Trade in marine shells from the Pacific coast (which had begun during the Early Archaic), and in other exotics became increasingly important.

While mountain sheep hunting was important in the Central region, and medium-game hunting and seed collecting were the focus of subsistence practices on the Sierra Nevada slopes, people living along lakeshores and marshes increased their exploitation of lake resources. In some areas village-like settlements served as base camps for the exploitation of fish of every size, from minnows upward to the two-foot long chub, the taking of water birds (including pelicans, herons, ducks, geese), and gathering a wide variety of plants including bulrush and cattail, rye grass and Panicum. The abundance and diversity of lake and marsh resources made it possible for people to live in the same area for most of the year.

Late – began about 1,500 years ago when the climate again turned warmer and drier, much like it is today, and lasted until the native populations were overwhelmed by American settlers in the late 1800s.

At the beginning of Late Archaic, the bow and arrow replaced the spear and atlatl, while pottery appeared about 1,000 years ago. At the same time, people began to use much more elaborate plant processing equipment (indicating, perhaps, new subsistence strategies involving a more diverse resource base), and small game (rabbits, hares) assumed great important.

Some anthropologists believe that these new cultural features may be related to the expansion into the Great Basin of groups speaking Numic languages. Certain Numic speaking populations living in southern California began spreading northward into the Great Basin around 1,000 years ago and by the time of European contact they had occupied the entire Great Basin.

Late Archaic Farmers

Groups practicing a mix of hunting, gathering and horticulture began to appear in the eastern and southern Great Basin about 1,600 years ago. In the eastern area, in the region of Utah, these “farmers”, who are called Fremont (a term which subsumes a number of regional variants), cultivated maize, beans, and squash, lived in fairly substantial houses of round pole-and-brush framework built over shallow excavated floors, kept their surplus food in well-built storage chambers made of adobe or stone, either above-ground or in pits, made pottery, and depicted ritual and war parties in rock pictographs. They also hunted bison and captured waterfowl and by 1,000 years ago had succeeded in breeding a stable, high-yield maize. Then shortly before 600 years ago, they disappeared, perhaps as a result of climatic changes.

Somewhat similarly, in the southern Great Basin, farmers from the Southwestern Culture Area, began occupying southern Nevada about 1,200 to 1,300 years ago. Like the Fremont, these Virgin River Anasazi as they are called, were successful for a time, but then they too disappeared, replaced by the Southern Paiute.

The Contact Period.

The first European contact with Great Basin groups was in the Southwest in the early 1600s, when Utes and Southern Paiutes began to raid the Spanish and Pueblo groups. One large group of Northern Shoshone, the Comanche, entered the Plains and moved south to Texas.

Europeans first entered the Great Basin in the late 1700s – the Southern Paiute were contacted by Spanish explorers in 1776, and the Northern Shoshone were encountered by Lewis and Clark in 1805. During the early1800s other parts of the Great Basin were explored by Europeans, primarily trappers and traders. Then in 1843, John Frémont crossed the Basin from east to west, demonstrating the feasibility of the crossing and opening the way for the establishment of immigrant routes to Oregon and California. After 1840, immigrants increasingly passed through the Great Basin, and some even stayed. The Mormons migrated to Utah in the 1840s and by the 1860s American ranchers had taken over most of the valleys for cattle ranching. Between 1846 and 1906, a total of 39 formal treaties and agreements were signed with Great Basin groups, each one making many promises as well as creating reservations. By the late 1800s, the government had established some 20 reservations, but often failed to provide essential materials that had been promised. Consequently, many of the native peoples either left the reservations or remained on them and starved to death.

Defining Features

Languages – A prominent feature of the Great Basin is its linguistic uniformity. Except for the Washo of Lake Tahoe, who spoke a language of the Hokan family, all other Great Basin peoples spoke one of six closely realted languages of the Numic family of Northern Uto-Aztecan.

Native Groups – Precontact aboriginal population figures for the Great Basin are, at best, tentative. Some authorities

•have place the total population at 22,000; others suggest a much higher figure, near 45,000 or more. Some thirteen native “groups occupied the Great Basin at the time of first European exploration. These groups are defined by linguistic, geographic, and material differences, and are known as the:

Washoe (surrounding Lake Tahoe)

Northern Paiute (southeastern Oregon and northwestern Nevada)

Southern Paiute (southeastern Nevada, nouthwestern Utah, tiny portion of northwestern Arizona)

Owens Valley Paiute (Owens Valley on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada Mountains)

Panamint Shoshone

•Northern Shoshone (southern Idaho)

Bannock (southern Idaho)

Western Shoshone (eastern Nevada and northwestern Utah)

Eastern Shoshone (western Wyoming)

Gosiute Shoshone

Ute (western Colorado and central Utah)

Kawaiisu (interior southern deserts of California)

Chemehuevi (interior southern desert of California, near the Colorado River)

Subsistence – Nearly all Great basin people were highly mobile gatherers and hunters, following a seasonal cycle of movements designed to exploit available plant and animal resources in the most efficient manner. The majority of their food (between 70-80%) was procured by gathering plants, and the principal defining resource were pinyon nuts. Pine nuts were for most all groups the major winter staple, allowing peopole to establish multi-family camps near pinyon groves. The nuts were harvested during the late summer and early fall and cached in rock-lined pits. When needed, the nuts were cracked open, the nut meat extracted and parched, then ground into flour with milling stones (the hand-held grinder, or mano, and the griding slab, or metate), and eaten in the form of a mush or gruel. Because of the importance of pinyon nuts in the lives of the Great Basin people, a certain amount of ceremonialism was associated with the pinyon harvest (see Round Dance, below).

•In addition to pinyon nuts, seeds of a variety of grasses, including Indian ridcegrass, blazing star, wheatgrass, and wild rye, were major resources for all the Great Basin groups. Where found, acorns, marsh plants, roots (such as camas) often formed major resources, while in the southwestern part of the Great Basin, mesquite beans and agave were critical resources for the Panamint Shoshone, Chemehuevi, and varous Southern Paiute groups. The mesquite beans were gathered in the spring and eaten either raw or cooked or ground into flour for later use. Agave stalks were cut from the plant, placed in earth ovens, and cooked.

•In some regions of the Great Basin, a linited amount of horticulture existed. For example, to enhance the growth of native grasses and tubers the Owens Valley Paiute diverted the streams descending from the Eastern Sierran escarpment. And in the southeastern deserts of California, some Southern Paiute also occasionally engaged in horticulture. But gathering and hunting was the main subsistence activity, and harticulturally produced foods never provided more than about 20% of the diet.

•Animals, especially hares, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, bighorn sheep and insects were also important and formed a major aspect of Great Basin subsistence. Hares were important for both their meat and their skins, the latter being processed into a number of useful items including clothing, blankets, etc. And in the southern Great Basin, several large reptiles (such as the desert tortoise and the chuckwalla) were eaten. Insects (including crickets, grasshoppers, shore flies, caterpillars, ants) also formed an important and highly nutritious food source and were purposefully hunted or gathered, and some even taken in large communal drives. Waterfowl were also heavily utilized, as were a number of fish species. Two large fish, the Lahontan cutthroat trout and the cui-ui sucker were heavily exploited by the Northern Paiute.

Settlement Patterns – Some groups lived in exceptionally rich lake-side or marshy environments and dwelt in larger, more sedentary camps for most of the year, perhaps enjoying more complex social organization. Where conditions allowed, winter encampments often were made up of many family units, wherelarge semi-subterranean houses were maintained. The when late spring arrived, the band tended to disperse into smaller microband and family units who would move through the band’s territory hunting and collecting. During the summer, housing usually consisted of windbreaks and shade or lightly built, domeshaped structures made of brush. During fall, the dispersed family units would coalesce once again at winter camps. At the other end of the continuum were tiny family groups, constantly on the move, living off seasonal foods at widely separated locations, and only in exceptionally good times would they settle for any length of time with other similarly constituted family units.

Political Organization – Most groups were organized at the family or extended family (microband) level. However, at certain times of the year (e.g., fall and winter or during communal hunts), a number of related families would combine to form a macroband. The size of the family, microband and macrobands depended on a variety of factors, but resource abundance at a particular meeting place was almost always the determining factor. Political systems were highly egalitarian. Each family and microband had a headman who was given responsibility by consensus. A headman’s title, degwani, meaning “talker” ,and indicates his most important function: the degwani was responsible for keeping track of plant and animal resources and relating this information to familines in order to facilitate scheduling of resource procurement activities.

Social Organization – The basic economic and sociopolitical unit was the nuclear family, although extended families were common. Kinship was traced bilaterally (through both mother’s and father’s side), but descent was patrilineal (through father’s side). The typical household, or microband, consisted of a mother, a father, several small children, older unmarried children, one or two grandparents, and perhaps an unmarried aunt, uncle, or cousin. This group was self-sufficient, self-govering, and for most of the year socially isolated from other similarly structured units.

•However, when the availability of more abundant resoruces within closely spaced microenvironments could support greater population densities, several related microbands would come together to form macrobands, usually to carry certain activities, such as the fall pinyon pine harvest or fall and winter communal pronghorn antelope hunts. Rabbits and hares were also often hunted communally by the members of a macroband. It was during these times that members of the microbands also exchanged a great deal of information regarding the locations of promising pine nut, fishing, and hunting areas. Additionally, trade relations could be established or reaffirmed, potential marriage partners could meat, and elders could relate to the younger generation the accumulated and collective wisdom and mythology of the group.

•Labor was divided along sex and age lines with men doing most of the hunting, although women and children trapped small game while out gathering. Women and children also helped during communal drives for rabbits, pronghorn antelope, and insects. Women were the primary providers and preparers of most of the plant foods, collecting the seeds, roots, insects, but men and children assisted during the pinyon harvest.

Religion – Traditional religious activity among the Great Basin peoples can be divided into two basic categories: individual, and group ceremonialism. In terms of individual religious activities, nearly all adults sought “power” through a spirit helper that appeared during a dream or during a vision quest. Such helpers aided perople in certain activities such as hunting, fishing, gambling, or doctoring. Certain forms of individual life crises, such as birth, puberty, menstruation, and death were also marked by particularly religious rituals, but almost always of a personal and private, rather than a public and communal, nature.

•Several scholars have noted that the general tenor of Basin life worked against collective social and ceremonial activities, and that group ceremonialism, by and large, was limited to dances held following communial subsistence activities, such as the pinyon harvest, or fish runs, or communal rabbit or pronghorn antelope hunts. The Round Dance, a circle dance with a hopping and shuffling step, and often held in a brush corral, was the usual Basin form. It functioned both as a recreational activity as well as a rite of thanks and fertility, aimed at increasing the food supply and bringing rain.

•The primary religious figures were the shamans, part-time specialists who possessed considerable “power” and used it for curing illnesses, controlling animals and the weather. Although most Great Basin shamans were males, female shamans were not uncommon. Illness was believed due to the presence in a person’s body of a disease-causing object (put there by personified clestial beings, personified environmental forces or places, or my malevolent humans) and curing involved sucking out the disease-causing object. Although some shamans possessed considerable knowledge of the curative properties of plants, herbal therapeutics was usually carried out by knowledge members of a person’s family rather than a shaman.

•Some Great Basin groups were involved in a number of religious movements, including the Ghost Dance in 1869 and 1889, both of which wre designed to revitalize native culture and restore the environment to pre-European levels. In the late 1880s some Great Basin groups adopted by Sun Dance in an effort to ameliorate poor conditions on the reservations.