The Native People of North America

Great Basin Culture Area

Introduction | Historical Overview | Defining Features
Reading Assignment | Resources


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


Assigned Readings From the Texts


Web Resources on the Great Basin

University of Nevada, Great Basin Indian Collection []

University of Nevada, Reno Libraries -- Special Collections []

Learn The Great Basin Links Page []

Great Basin Indians - Encyclopdia Britannica [,5716,127686+1,00.html]

MMSD Video Catalog: Subject Listing: Native Americans []


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Cultures Areas
Arctic | Subarctic | Northwest Coast

Plateau | California | Great Basin
Southwest | Plains

Northeast Woodlands | Southeast Woodlands

Updated: 09 Mar 2000