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Native Cultures in the Mojave Desert:

Early Desert Culture

Glaciers periodicaly blanketed much of the world during the Pleistocene Epoch, approximately 2.5 million to ten thousand years ago. The rivers of ice gradually receded as the epoch ended. As conditions improved, early hunters pursued herds of large animals. The land and climate differed dramatically from today. It was cooler. Lakes and swamps existed where no water remains now. Lush grasslands covered the plains, supporting mammoths, mastodons, horses, camels, and, in some areas, bison.

Desert People

    These early people, called “Paleo Indians,” are known mainly from their stone tools. One distinctive style of stone tool is called the Clovis Point. This leaf-shaped point measures four to five inches in length and was attached to a wooden spear shaft.

    Hunters used a spear thrower, or atlatl, to propel the spear. Most atlatls were little more than a wooden shaft with a hooked end. The weapon’s hollow tip fitted over the hook. A quick snap of the arm launched the spear. This revolutionary tool increased the force and speed of the spear. While improved weapons and hunting techniques possibly reduced some animal populations, erratic climatic changes probably had greater impact. Sixty animal species disappeared by the end of the Pleistocene Epoch.

Changing Lifeways

    Starting ten thousand years ago, the climate in the Mojave Desert region gradually became more arid. This change meant only desert-adapted plants and animals survived. As the world changed so did the people.

    Between nine and ten thousand years ago, a Desert Archaic culture began to emerge. These hunter-gatherers lived in small groups, moving from place to place as food became available — agave in the spring, cactus and mesquite beans in the summer, acorns and pinyon pine nuts in the fall. They lived in caves, rock shelters, and shelters constructed of poles and brush.

    Plants dominated the diet and provided numerous medicines. Wooden digging sticks were used to dig roots and tubers. Coiled baskets held seeds and nuts. Flour was ground from seeds by rubbing a mano against a flat milling stone (metate). The flour could be cooked fresh or stored in cache pits. Cooking was done in ceramic vessels called ollas (ô’yäs) or by heating rocks in a fire and then placing them in baskets filled with liquids.

    Meat supplemented the diet. Game was obtained by netting, trapping, snaring, or hunting. Almost any animal was taken — birds, bighorn sheep, jack rabbits, chuckwallas, even insects. Drying and smoking preserved the meat for later use.

    The desert also provided clothing. Rabbit skins were woven into capes and blankets. Densely woven sandals of yucca fibers protected feet. Shells from the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California were obtained in trade and used for necklaces and other adornments.

    The desert’s rhythm governed all aspects of life. This seasonal search for food and resources continued for some groups until the introduction of domesticated foods encouraged a more sedentary lifestyle. For others, the hunting-gathering way of life continued until historic times.

Gardening in the Desert

    Domesticated corn, beans, and squash arrived in the desert southwest some five thousand years ago. However, people did not come to depend on cultivation until as late as A.D. 800. At first, farming was casual. Seeds tossed on partially cleared fields received little attention while the groups continued to exploit native resources. In the fall, they harvested the domesticated plants along with native seeds and nuts. Later, farming practices intensified.

    As farming gained importance, groups built scattered villages on river terraces. The Anasazi living in Nevada initially built pit houses — structures partially dug into the ground and then roofed with timbers and mud. Later they built mortar and stone blockhouses known as pueblos. Other groups fashioned structures with mud and sticks, or continued to build brush shelters.

    Storing The Harvest

    Depending on available materials, baskets or ceramic vessels were used. Initially, Desert Indians made plain utilitarian vessels for cooking and storage. Later, some groups fashioned highly decorative wares. Stylized pottery often reflected group identity and changing time periods. Today, archeologists use the different styles of pottery as guides to understanding the people who made them.

Changing Times

    Farming produced a steady source of food. But more food meant more people. Village sizes increased, and social organization became more complex. Groups like the Anasazi flourished briefly, but farming in the desert was risky. Croplands became exhausted. Prolonged droughts brought further hardships. Social tensions may have intensified. The picture remains unclear, but we do know that groups like the Anasazi abandoned the Mojave Desert by A.D. 1150, retreating eastward. The groups that remained —Cahuilla, Chemehuevi, Hualapai, Mohave, Serrano, Southern Paiute, Shoshone, and others continued their traditional lifestyle until the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century. These peoples, and the nameless ones that preceded them, left a rich legacy in human adaptation to one of the world’s harshest environments — a legacy that offers important lessons to contemporary inhabitants of these lands.

Traditional Territories


source - Mojave Desert Discovery, NPS.

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