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Our Desert Was Once A Green Oasis: Archaeology and Paleoindians within the AV

Written by: Alexandra Jonassen MOAH Collections

You may have looked out upon the large dry lakes surrounding the Antelope Valley and wondered: how could these large lakes been filled with water in such a harsh desert? Did people ever occupy these areas? The answer is yes; people did occupy these areas and these giant lakes were once filled. These people are the earliest inhabitants of North America, termed Paleoindians by archaeologists.


The Antelope Valley is part of the southern end of the Great Basin region, which includes most of Nevada, half of Utah, Oregon, and California, as well as parts of Idaho, Wyoming, and Baja California. Paleoindians are thought to have occupied the Great Basin during the Terminal Pleistocene to Early Holocene eras, also referred to as the Pre-Archaic and Archaic periods, which spanned approximately 12,000 to 8,000 years ago (Grayson 2011). The geological period that we are in today is still the Holocene era which began approximately 10,000 years ago.


During the Terminal Pleistocene era while Paleoindians occupied the area, the climate was considered to be cooler and more moist than it is today. This wetter climate filled the large dry lakes we see today, which are called Pluvial lakes. These lakes had lush wetland marsh habitats surrounding them, which would attract wildlife including birds, both large and small mammals, plants, and brine shrimp that Paleoindians would utilize as food. Some examples of a Pluvial lake that exist locally are the Rosamond and Rogers Dry Lake located on Edwards Airforce Base (See Figure 1).


Figure 1: Aerial View of Rosamond and Rogers Dry Lake Beds, Google Maps


It is generally thought that during this time, Paleoindians were highly mobile hunters and gathers that would travel across the landscape to these wetland patches and utilize the abundant animal and plant resources that were present. They would occupy a patch of wetlands until it was profitable for them to move on to the next wetland area (Grayson 2011). How often this movement occurred is debated, but most scholars agree that Paleoindian movement between patches was fairly quick within the Late Pleistocene, as there were many other rich wetlands to exploit. These movements have been conceptualized as being part of annual movement cycles, seasonal rounds, and shorter-term routes (Jones 2003, Lothrop et. al 2018). How often Paleoindian movement occurred is debated by Mojave desert archaeologists.


This highly mobile strategy persisted until approximately 10,000 years ago, when shifting climate conditions occurred during the Early Holocene, in which the climate became more dry and hot, much like it is today (Grayson 2011). This caused wetland resource patches to diminish and Paleoindians were forced to become more sedentary, focusing on utilizing whatever resources were available to them. This especially included food sources such as seeds. Seeds often require labor intensive processing in order to consume them. They have to be gathered, oftentimes from very small plants requiring intensive hand labor and basketry, and then broken down into edible forms such as meal. Paleoindians as well as later Native Americans utilized tools known as groundstone, tools made from stone, to process seeds down into a more edible meal that can then be cooked and eaten (See Figures 2 and 3 for examples of Labor Intensive Seed Processing)


Figure 2: Example of Labor Intensive Seed Processing, Breaking Open Acorns Utilizing Stone Tools at the 2022 Society for California Archaeology Meeting Acorn Processing Workshop, photo by A. Jonassen


There are also places known as bedrock milling features, where seeds and other resources were reduced down. Bedrock milling features consist of cupules or holes in sheets of bedrock where foods were dropped into and then ground. This change in temperature and lack of other resources is evidenced in the archaeological record by an increase in the presence of groundstone artifacts in archaeological sites starting at 8.5 thousand years ago (Jones 2003, Grayson 2011). Because more groundstone is being found associated with this time period, archaeologists can conclude that people were needing to utilize resources such as seeds that required more effort in procurement and processing because the availability of other resources was decreasing due to climate change.


Figure 3: Example of Labor Intensive Seed Processing, Utilizing groundstone to grind acorns into meal at the 2022 Society for California Archaeology Meeting Acorn Processing Workshop, photo by A. Jonassen


In addition to basic resources such as food and water, lithic material known as toolstone, stone used to create tools, was another crucial resource that Paleoindians needed to obtain in order to survive. Toolstone would have been crafted into different forms of tools, such as blades and spearheads, to kill and process various resources. It is assumed that Paleoindians procured toolstone while on their foraging rounds as they moved about the landscape (Jones 2003). Within the Antelope Valley region, we have several large toolstone quarries of a material called rhyolite that has been utilized for thousands of years. Due to the poor preservation of organic remains in the Mojave Desert region, lithics are often the only artifacts preserved well enough to apply them to understanding Paleoindian mobility strategies. New geochemical sourcing technology has enabled archaeologists to source where a specific type of toolstone came from. For example, if a stone tool is found at a site, it can be sourced to a rock quarry source hundreds of miles away. Somehow, the tool was originally procured from that quarry and then transported to the site in which it was found. Tracing where toolstone came from and where it ended up enables archaeologists to see where Paleoindians were going and what strategies they were taking for moving about and thriving in the landscape. By analyzing the materials left behind, archaeologists are able to trace how Paleoindians utilized the landscape and how drastically it has changed overtime. Research within the region is ongoing and new discoveries will continue to help shape our understanding of the past.

The Native American tribes that occupy the Antelope Valley today include the Serrano, the Nuwa (Kawaiisu), the Kitanemuk, the Tataviam, Paiute, and Nuwu (Chemehuevi). They are all considered to be descendants of Paleoindian groups in the Great Basin region.


References

Grayson, Don. The Great Basin: A Natural Prehistory Revised and Expanded Edition. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2011.

Jones, George T., Charlotte Beck, Eric E. Jones, and Richard E. Hughes. “Lithic Source Use and Paleoarchaic Foraging Territories in the Great Basin.” American Antiquity 68, no. 1 (January 2003): 5-38.

Lothrop, Jonathan C., Adrian L. Burke, Susan Winchell-Sweeney, and Gilles Gauthier

2018 Coupling Lithic Sourcing with Least Cost Path Analysis to Model Paleoindian Pathways in Northeastern North America. American Antiquity, Volume 83, Issue 3. DOI:10.1017/aaq.2018.25.

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