Life in the interior deserts of southern California was often difficult: the people had to contend with harsh winters, blistering hot summers, scanty rainfall, and, except for the transition zones between the desert and the southern coastal region, relatively few useful plants and animals. But despite these difficulties, people have called this region home for more than ten thousand years. When the first Euroamericans entered California's interior desert region it was populated by people who were exclusively gatherers-hunters, with plant food as the mainstay of subsistence, accounting for perhaps seventy percent of the diet. More than one hundred species of roots, greens, seeds, nuts, and berries were regularly collected, with the nuts of the piñon pine the single most important food resource for hill and mountain groups, while desert groups relied heavily of the fruits of cacti and the seedpods of mesquite.

The location of camps and the rhythm of seasonal movements was largely dictated by the distribution of edible plants rather than animals. Mobility and intensive labor were the keys to successful plant procurement in the desert interior. The equipment used to gather and prepare plant food was simple, yet highly effective and included the digging stick, woven, paddle-shaped seed beaters, collecting trays, and burden baskets.

Members of at least ten non-political ethnic nationalities (that is, a people sharing similar culture, history, religious system, language, and territory) occupied the desert interior. Members of three of these nationalities spoke languages in the Numic linguistic family:

Six other nationalities, all within the California culture area, spoke languages of the Takic linguistic family:

In extreme southwestern California and northwestern Baja California lived the Ipai and Tipai peoples whose language, sometimes designated Diegueño, is classified in the Yuman language family, Hokan stock:

Defining Features

Three features of the Desert Region's environment are of particular importance:

Many of the valleys had marsh-like riparian plant and animal communites which, although of limited size, supported an abundance of edible roots, birds, and fish. The desert scrublands contained shrub-like trees, some of which provided edible seeds, grasses with edible seeds, and various species of cacti with edible seeds and fruits. In many of the adjacent foothills piñon pines grew (and from which nuts were obtained). And during the summer , deer and mountain sheep were avialable in the higher elevations.

The diversity of habitats (from marsh-like riparian to desert scrublands to mixed piñon-juiper woodlands to bristlecone-limberpine forests) and resources insured that no matter how conditions varied from year to year, some kinds of plants and animals would be available. However, because the range of plant and animals exploited by the native people was do diverse, exploitive technology necessarily had to be simple and generalized rather than complex and specialized. Furthermore, since the location, kind, and quantity of resources that would be available could not be known in advance, stable social units were no larger than absolutely necessary to accomplish the basic tasks of subsistence. In most groups, the important social unit was the nuclear family: a mother and father, their unmarried children, and perhaps one or two elderly or unmarried relatives. However, in more resource rich areas, where seasonal available was more predictable, the basic socio-economic unit was the extended family.

For additional information on the Desert Interior Region,
please select a topic most applicable to your interests

Languages | Subsistence | Settlement Patterns | Sociopolitical Organization |Religion

Northwest Coast | Northeast | Central Coast and Central Valley
East of the Sierra Divide | Interior Desert | Southern Coastal

Native Peoples of California - Topics

To comment on this page please send email to Chuck Smith at

Page last updated: 23 August 1999