People and Sites

EARLY MAN IN THE NORTHERN GREAT BASIN

By Leslie S. Pfeiffer, Associate Editor

The Great Basin is a large, arid region of the northwestern United States. The northern Great Basin includes south-central Oregon, northern Nevada, and the northeastern border of California. The Great Basin is mainly high altitude desert, but during the Pleistocene it was quite different. Lake Lahontan covered a large part of the northern Great Basin. At its peak around 12,700 years ago, the lake had a surface area of 8,500 square miles and was 900 feet deep at present-day Lake Pyramid and 500 feet at the Black Rock Desert. Lake Lahontan, during the early Ice Age, was one of the largest lakes in North America. Around 12,800 years ago a bitterly cold period known as the Younger Dryas occurred, and as it ended around 11,500 years ago the climate warmed considerably. This climate change around the end of the Pleistocene led to a gradual desiccation of the great bodies of water, and Lake Lahontan broke up into a series of smaller lakes and marshes by 9,000 years ago. Early man hunted large game such as mammoth and mastodon, camel, and horse at the end of the Pleistocene, but subsisted also on smaller game such as hare, sage grouse, and waterfowl, and also gathered plants and seeds. More than anywhere else on the continent, the most important subsistence patterns were tied to foraging around available water sources: lakes, springs, rivers, and most importantly, marshes around the edges of these great lakes.

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Steve Wallman at the DeLong Mammoth Site, Black
Rock Desert, in July, 1992. 

There are a number of important sites in the northern Great Basin and northwest. At the Mani s Site on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, a broken bone point made from an elk antler was 'found imbedded in a mastodon rib. This has been radiocarbon dated to 14,000 years ago, but further testing is being done to verify this very early date.

At the East Wenatchee Site (Richey Clovis Cache) in central Washington near the Columbia River, a cache of the finest Clovis artifacts known (finished bifaces, preforms, adzes, and endscrapers) was found in an apple orchard in 1988. New radiocarbon dates at 13,125 years ago from ash found around the cache fit perfectly into the Clovis time period.

At the Dietz Site in Lake County, Oregon, a classic obsidian Clovis was found with abrasions in the flutes to help adhere the very slick obsidian to a haft.

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Found near Harney Lake, Oregon, this Clovis point has caliche on one side.

 

At the Buhl Burial Site in Twin Falls County, Idaho, the skeletal remains of a 17 to 21 year old woman was found and radiocarbon dated to 10,675 years ago. A classic Windust point made of obsidian was found with the remains, and it gives us an excellent early date for the stemmed-point tradition of the Great Basin.

At Fort Rock Cave in central Oregon, Luther Cressman of the University of Oregon excavated dozens of stylistically distinct sandals dating between 10,500 and 9,200 years ago.

The Marmes Rockshelter, in southeastern Washington (Franklin County) at the confluence of the Snake and Palouse Rivers, is one of the most important sites in the Pacific Northwest. The site was excavated from 1962 to 1964 by Richard Daugherty of Washington State University. The site was occupied over 8,000 years, with the earliest dates at 11,230 years ago.The people living at the site hunted elk and deer with atlatls, hunted beaver, and gathered mussels and caught salmon from the river. There were at least 36 humans buried in the rockshelter between 9,000 and 680 years ago. One child burial had five matching stone knives with it.

In 1950 Daugherty excavated the Lind Coulee Site on the lower Snake River in Washington. It was a very important site used for 100 to 150 years around 8,700 years ago, and the stemmed Lind Coulee point was named for the site. The site had a huge artifact assemblage made primarily of agates and chalcedonies, and included three types of stemmed points, the base of a Black Rock Concave, two crescents, endscrapers, and a bone tool assemblage including eyed needles, serrated and unserrated bone points, beveled bone shafts, and bone beads.

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This basalt Black Rock Concave point was found in 
Warner Valley in southeast Oregon.
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Black Rock Concave points. The longest point is 4'/2"
and is the longest the finder has seen. The second
point from the lower right has a needle tip. It was
found in five pieces in 1976.

 

Paisley Five Mile Point Rockshelter in south central Oregon was excavated by Dennis Jenkins of Oregon University, and was possibly inhabited 14,000 years ago (from the dating of human coprolites), but this very early "pre-Clovis" date is still in the process of being verified.

Cougar Mountain Cave in south central Oregon was excavated by John Cowles between February and June of 1958. In the lower levels were a number of Haskett and Cougar Mountain points.

The Witt Site was a surface-found collection by Donald Witt at Tulare Lake in the San Joaquin Valley of California. In addition to the artifacts, Mr. Witt collected the fossilized bones of horse, bison, and elephant. The site was backed by a high ridge, and there was a limestone "pavement" by which large mammals could travel to-and-from the swampy shoreline of the lake; it was a good ambush site. There were a number of Black Rock Concave points and a considerable number of crescents found at this site, and it is the best association of these two types known.

The point type chronology of the northern Great Basin is much debated. My arrangement begins with Clovis because, even if Paisley Five Mile Point Rockshelter is a legitimate 14,000 year old site, there is no lithic material.

Clovis artifacts in the Great Basin are scarce, scattered, and have not been found with animal remains, or in the area's caves and rockshelters where there is much evidence of the Great Basin stemmed points. The best evidence of Clovis is to the north at East Wenatchee (with excellent radiocarbon dates of 13,125 years ago) with the Richey cache, to the west in Idaho with the Simon cache, and to the south with the Fenn cache. During the terminal Pleistocene the northern Great Basin was very cold, windy, and wet. It is likely the Clovis people were "just passing through" following big game and, depending on your point of view: 1) crossing the Bering land bridge and traveling through an ice-free corridor south and east, or using watercraft and came down the Pacifc coast, making landfall at river mouths and inlets—Loren Davis of Oregon State University is exploring coastal sites in Oregon and southern California hoping to find evidence of early entry; 2) "backflowing" from the northern High Plains into the Great Basin. One of the great mysteries of American archaeology is where Clovis and its unique fluting technology arose. The accepted theory is probably in the southern High Plains because of the presence of core blade technology with Clovis assemblages there.

The Black Rock Concave point type was named by C. W. Clewlow, Jr. in 1968 for examples he collected in the Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada. It is a thin, finely flaked point similar to the Plainview/Goshen point types. They are usually transversely flaked with edge grinding, but no grinding in the concave base. The base is thinned with vertical pressure flakes. Black Rock Concave points have long been associated with crescents and have been found together in good numbers at the Witt Site in California, and a Black Rock Concave point base and two crescents were found at the Lind Coulee Site. There was one crescent with the Fenn Cache, and there have been two small crescents reported from southeastern Wyoming. The majority of crescents are found on the edges of extinct lakes and marshes, and their use is much debated. They may have been used to harvest tule rushes growing in shallow water, but from the variety of crescents seen, they had many uses. I have seen them serrated, burinated, with graver tips, heavily ground in the concavity and/or on the convex surface, and unifacial or bifacial. More crescents were made from agates, cherts, and jaspers than from obsidian or basalt.

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Some of these crescents were found the summer of
1965 when the finder was 16 years old. None are
obsidian, and the largest is about 2
3/4" long. 

Haskett points were named by Robert Butler in 1965 from a collection found at the Lake Channel Site in Idaho. They are long, non-shouldered lanceolate points, up to 9" long, and flaked by percussion, leaving scalloped flake scars on both sides of a median ridge. The stem is heavily ground, but the convex base is not. The cross section ranges from thick lenticular to diamond-shaped. Two radiocarbon dates at the Red Fish Rockshelter in central Idaho range from 10,100 to 9,860 years ago.

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I will begin the Great Basin Stemmed (shouldered) point series with Cougar Mountain points, which were named by Thomas Layton in 1972 for points found at Cougar Mountain Cave by John Cowles. Cowles found Haskett and Cougar Mountain points in the lowest levels of the cave, raising the possibility that Haskett and Cougar Mountain were different cultures or complexes that co-existed at the same time. They are long, stemmed lanceolate points with definite sloped shoulders and a convex base. The stem is heavily ground and has a thick lenticular to a thick oval cross section. The blade is lenticular to diamond shaped.

Windust points were named by H.S. Rice in 1965 from the oldest deposits at Windust caves in southeastern Washington. There are excellent dates for Windust points from the Buhl burial in Idaho (10,675 years ago), and from the Marmes Rockshelter (near the Windust caves) at 10,810 years ago. Windust points are shouldered lanceolate points with the basal edge ranging from straight to deeply concave.

Parman points. These types are all percussion-flaked, thick, and the stems are usually ground, but not highly refined. There is a good radiocarbon date for Lind Coulee at 8,518 years ago. It seems to me that Lake Mohave and Silver Lake are definitely the same type, and Parman and Lind Coulee are also the same. It is very possible that they are all one point type, the differences in length, stem shape, and workmanship being due to lithic sources available, heavily reworked points resharpened repeatedly in the field and rehafted versus a primary form, and regional variation. Both Lake Mohave and Silver Lake points, and the Windust point from the Buhl burial, are often modified with a chisel tip. These points are purposely modified to leave a sharp, transverse chisel edge to the point. A proposed chronology would be: Clovis - Black Rock Concave/Crescent - Haskett - Great Basin Stemmed (shouldered) Series: Cougar Mountain - Windust - Lake Mohave/Silver Lake - Parman/ Lind Coulee. New studies show Pinto Basin points (small points with a split or bifurcated stem) fitting into the time period of Great Basin stemmed points, with the dates being obtained from hydration analysis on obsidian artifacts. It is possible that the Great Basin stemmed points changed from the larger types 10,600 years ago to the smaller types around 8,500 years ago with changes in game and weaponry. Or they may have all coexisted with the larger types being lance points and knives for bigger butchering tasks, and the smaller types being dart points and smaller knives. I don't favor this second theory because it would mean that the stemmed point series survived as a culture or complex for 2,000 years. With the climate becoming warmer and dryer, the lakes began to dry up, and the surrounding marshes and the people who lived by foraging around them also disappeared. There is an excellent new book titled Paleoindian or Paleoarchaic? Great Basin Human Ecology at the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition edited by Kelly E. Graf and Dave N. Schmitt for anyone wanting to learn more. Dewey Dietz' six-part series "Northern Great Basin Paleo Points" in Indian Artifact Magazine remains one of the most important studies on this subject.

Leslie S. Pfeiffer D.D.S. has had a life-long interest in archaeology, with his main interest being the Paleo and Early Archaic time periods. He founded the Lone Star State Archaeological Society in 1998, the same year he started the Temple, Texas artifact show. Leslie has served the G.I.R.S. as Treasurer, Co-Editor in Chief, member of the Board of Directors, and is Vice President-elect for 2009-2010. He has written numerous articles for both Prehistoric American and the Central States Archaeological Journal. He is also Chairman of the Board for The Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A & M University, and is a board member for The George Frison Institute at The University of Wyoming.