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Mojave Desert Indians : Plant Use

Indian use of Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands

Originally titled - Role of Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands in Aboriginal Societies of the Desert West
Joel C. Janetski

Abstract Archaeological data and ethnographic accounts testify of the importance of resources available in the pinyon-juniper woodland to native peoples since the early Holocene. Food, shelter, raw material for tool construction, tinder, and preferred settlement location are a few of these. Although early evidence is sometimes inconclusive, information from more recent periods argue for increasing reliance on this vegetative community and its resources through time.

In: Monsen, Stephen B.; Stevens, Richard, comps. 1999. Proceedings: ecology and management of pinyon-juniper communities within the Interior West; 1997 September 15-18; Provo, UT. Proc. RMRS-P-9. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station.
Joel C. Janetski is with the Department of Anthropology, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.

The pinyon and juniper community is widespread across the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin regions of the Desert West. This community provided aboriginal peoples with some of the most basic raw material to sustain life. The intent of this paper is to review some of the ways these resources were used in recent times as well as the evidence for use in the more distant past. I will focus on plants in the paper, and more specifically, pinyon and juniper. Clearly many other resources (animals of various kinds, grasses, sage) were present, but a discussion of all such resources and the ways in which they were used would take me far beyond the allotted time.

Aboriginal Peoples of the Desert West

The Desert West was and is home to various Shoshone (or Uto-Aztekanspeaking) groups, Ute, Southern Paiute, Northern Paiute, Kawaiisu, and W~sho (Hokan speaking) in the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau and the Puebloan (Hopi, Zuni, Rio Grande Pueblos) and Athabaskan (Navaho and Apache) peoples of Arizona and New Mexico. Lifeways in these diverse regions were likewise variable. Nearly all of the peoples of the Great Basin, for example, were hunters and gatherers and relied exclusively on indigenous plants and animals for their livelihood. Exception were the Southern Paiute in the St. George Basin who raised some crops: corn, squash, maybe some others. Of course, the Puebloan peoples were farmers but, nonetheless, gathered many native or wild resources both for food and for other purposes. The Navaho and Apache, recent migrants to the American Southwest, are more eclectic in their subsistence practices, with pastoralism mixed with some farming and gathering and hunting. The pinyon-juniper community provided important resources for all.

Ethnographic Uses of Pinyon and Juniper


Nuts from pinyon pine, both Pinus edulis (Colorado pinyon) and P. monophylla (singleleaf pinyon), were one of the most important foods for peoples of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau. Wherever they were available they were gathered in large quantities. But they were particularly important to the Great Basin people. Premier Great Basin ethnographer, Julian Steward, calls pinyon "The most important single food species where it occurs ... " (Steward 1938:27).

Pine nuts are high in protein and fats, although the percentages vary with the species (table 1). Singleleaf pinyon is higher in fat and protein while Colorado pinyon is higher in carbohydrates. The fat content exceeds that of chocolate and both contain all 20 amino acids required for human growth. Also, both contain tryptophan, an essential amino acid that is deficient in the diet of corn farmers CHuckell 1992:125). Singleleaf produces somewhat fewer seeds than Colorado, a tendency that is offset by the thinner hulls of singleleaf resulting in larger nutmeats. Both are ranked high on the list of available foods for people in the arid west. That is, pine nuts yield excellent returns for people who gathered wild foods for a living.

Productivity of the trees varies also. Good crops for a particular tree can occur every 4 or 5 years for P. edulis and every 2 or 3 for P. monophylla, although some nuts may be produced every year. Steward (1938:27) states: "In some years there is a good crop throughout the area, in some years virtually none." Productivity also apparently varies with the age of the stand, with old trees producing fewer filled hulls C. Huckell 1992:132). An illustration of this variability is presented by Lanner (1983:170) for a stand of monophylla in the Raft River Mountains of northwestern Utah. A 5 year study reported per acre cone production as follows: 1975, 765 cones; 1976, 0 cones; 1977, 2,560 cones; 1978,2,325 cones; 1979,585 cones. In general, singleleaf is more prod uctive and more predictable than Colorado pinyon (Sutton 1984). Sullivan (1992:200-201), on the other hand, has argued that archaeologists have tended to overplay the variable nature of pinyon nut production. Citing various sources, he maintains that pinyon production can be predicted rather accurately 2 years in advance and with considerable accuracy 1 year in advance (Sullivan 1992:200).

Gathering of Pine Nuts
Pine nuts were usually gathered in the early fall at about the time of the first frosts. Two methods were employed: green or brown cone harvesting (see Madsen 1986). The former took place before the cones opened. The green cones were either removed from branches using a hook or sometimes branches containing cones were broken off the tree. Once removed the sticky cones were placed in pits and roasted until the cones began to open. They were then pulled out ofthe fire with sticks, cooled, and opened, and the nuts were removed and tossed in a heap. A graphic account of pine nut harvesting by the green cone method is suppled by Howard Egan in western Nevada in the late 1800's.
    Jack and I were taking a scouting trip high up in the Schell Creek Range of mountains, when we came across an Indian who, with his [wife) and children were busily engaged gathering pine nuts. The man had a long pole with a strong hook fastened to one end. He would reach up in the tree to the pine cones, hook the crook around the branch on which they hung and pull branch and all down, the woman and children carrying them to a place and piling them up in a heap. When they had collected as many as they wanted that day, the [man) has finished his part of the work and could pass the rest of the time sleeping or hunting squirrels just as he pleased.

    The women and children gathered a little dry brush which was thrown loosely over the pile of cones and set fire to. The cones are thickly covered all over with pitch, for this reason they make a hot fire, the [woman) watching and stirring it up as needed to keep the nuts from burning, as she rakes them back from the fire as a man would do when drawing charcoal.

    When the pitch was all burned off the burs or cones, the [woman) spreads a blanket down close to the pile, then taking up one cone at a time, would press them end ways between her hands, which opens the leaves, under which there were two nuts to every leaf, Then shaking the cones over the blanket area the nuts would all fall out as clean as you please.

    When the nuts had all been cleaned from the cones they were put in a large basket that would hold over two bushels and was nearly; full, the [woman) carrying that on her back to a place where they were placed all through the pine-nut grove to save carrying them too far and save time for the harvest does not last long, for a heavy frost will cause the cones to open and the nuts to fall to the ground (Egan 1917:241).

The brown cone method was practiced after the cones began to open on the tree. Large woven mats (or in recent times canvas tarps) were placed under the tree. The harvesters beat on the branches holding cones with long sticks to either knock the nuts out of the cones or the cones out of the tree. Both would then fall on to the mats. The cones and nuts were gathered and placed in large conical baskets for transport. Of course, once nuts fell to the ground or even when cones had opened while still on the tree, they were eagerly sought by other foragers (birds, squirrels, insects).
Pine Nut Processing
Pine nut meats were eaten raw while harvesting or after toasting. But most were toasted, hulled, winnowed, and ground into a paste for making a pine nut soup or gruel. Initial roasting was done by placing a few handfuls of nuts on a winnowing tray along with hot coals. The two were mingled while moving the tray quickly to keep it and the nuts from burning. The coals were then tossed off the tray and the nuts placed on a flat rock and lightly crushed to crack the hulls. The cracked nuts were then returned to the winnowing tray and separated from the meats by tossing all into the air with the lighter hulls blown away by the wind. The meats were then toasted again in a similar fashion until the nuts were hard. After cleaning the meats with a nut paste, they were ground into flour on the grinding stones. The flour was used to make soup or gruel. The soup was sometimes mixed with meat to give it more flavor. The Navajo made a kind of pine nutbutter and spread it on corn cakes.
Pine Nut Storage
Importantly, pine nuts could be stored for future use. Pits or other storage facilities were up to 5 ft in diameter, lined with rocks, grass, or bark (probably juniper) and covered over with more bark, branches, dirt, and more rocks. Nuts were sometimes stored in cones and sometimes in hulls. Stored in this way, nuts lasted at least through the winter. Puebloan peoples would store enough pine nuts to last them 2 or 3 years. Great Basin tribes usually consumed all their stores by the late winter. The importance of pinyon is reflected in myths and the fact that some groves were actually owned by families and defended (Steward 1933). In Owens Valley, California, for example, feuds were sometimes fought over the gathering of pine nuts in neighbors groves.

Juniper (Juniperus spp.) berries were occasionally used for food but had much less value as a food item than pinyon. The Apache ate them fresh and pounded them to make bread or a juniper tea (Goodwin 1935). Utes separated the berry pulp from the seed with a stone muller after which the pulp was eaten fresh or dried (Smith 1974). Harrington (1967) describes juniper berries used by Southwest people as an ingredient in bread or in stews for flavoring. Great Basin people used juniper berries sparingly, a fact suggested by the Shoshone term for Juniper, wa'ap 0 pi, which means fire material or kindling wood according to Chamberlin (1911:372), which emphasizes a nonfood role for juniper. Providing raw material for fuel and constructing shelters were the two most important uses for juniper (see below). However, juniper berries were occasionally eaten in fall and winter after boiling (Fowler 1986:73).

Shelter and Other Constructions

Pinyon and juniper were the primary materials for house construction among many peoples of the Desert West. Although Puebloan house walls were constructed of stone, the roofs of both residential and religious architecture (kivas) were constructed using pinyon and/or juniper for beams and held up with timbers of the same material. The more nomadic Navajo built hogans, sweathouses, ramadas, fences and corrals, drying racks, and storage facilities using primarily juniper and pinyon as raw material (Jett and Spencer 1981). Not only were the trunks of trees used for wall construction and roofsupport, but juniper bark was an integral element in roof construction.

Stansbury made numerous observations of Native American lifeways as he traversed the perimeter ofthe Great Salt Lake in 1852. At the north end of the lake he described a house built using juniper:

In a nook of mountains, some Indian lodges were seen, which had apparently been finished but a short time. They were constructed in the usual form, of cedar (juniper) poles and logs of considerable size, thatched with bark and branches, and were quite warm and comfortable. The odor of the cedar was sweet and refreshing. Such houses were often floored with mats of juniper loosely woven (Stansbury 1852: 111).

Medicinal and Miscellaneous Uses

Medicinal uses of pinyon were limited, although pitch or gum was sometimes put into boiling water and drunk to purge individuals infected with worms or other parasites (Chamberlin 1911:350). Juniper brewed into a tea furnished medicine for coughs and colds (Chamberlin 1911:372). Pinyon pitch was used to line basketry water jugs and to seal and glue ceramic vessels together. Pitch also served as a mastic to hold projectile points or stone tools tightly to a shaft or handle. Juniper bark provided an important fiber for mats, diapers, menstrual pads, fire making material (hearth and tinder) as well as a cushioning and protective lining for storage pits. Open twined matting of juniper bark was a common textile manufactured by Great Basin peoples. The ubiquitous use of both woods for fuel across the Desert West seems an obvious point.

Pinyon Ecology and Shoshonean Settlement

The variability in pine nut productivity was a critical factor in Great Basin aboriginal life. As the pinyon harvest went, so went the people. As noted earlier, pine nuts are produced every year but only produce quantities adequate to supply stores for winter food demands every few years. Because of this variation in productivity and the need to spend the winter near stores or cached nuts, Julian Steward proposed a causal relationship between the unpredictability of pinyon and the high residential mobility of these peoples as they moved winter villages to be near the most recent productive areas. This fact, according to Steward, contributed to the fragmentation of aboriginal society in the Great Basin (especially the Western Shoshone in the central portion of the region).

The extreme importance placed on pinyon by Steward made life without pinyon a difficult one to understand for people in the Great Basin area. Given the nutritional value and the availability of pinyon, one would expect that pine nuts would be in the diet of native peoples as long as they were available in good numbers. In addition, the presence of pinyon in archaeological sites provided a basis for assuming a lifeway in the past similar to that documented by Steward. How long ago did pinyon appear in archaeological sites? The presence of pinyon in archaeological sites could argue that the nomadic lifeway described by Steward for the Western Shoshone was operative at the time the site was occupied. This leads to a more complex question of what kinds of archaeological evidences are there for the use of pinyon? This task proves more difficult than it might seem. A review of the evidence for the use of pinyon in the Desert West follows.

Archaeological Evidences

Archaeological excavations in Utah and elsewhere in the Desert West have demonstrated the importance of both pinyon and juniper for food, construction materials, and fibers. Demonstrating the use of either plant for medicinal use is difficult given the vagaries of archaeological data. The following is an attempt to synthesize far flung data but is not an attempt to be exhaustive.


Proving that pine nuts were used for food is sometimes difficult. One must first ask what is acceptable evidence of using pine nuts for food. Certainly the most direct evidence of pinyon use would be finding pinyon remains in human feces or coprolites or in garbage dumps (middens) left by humans. Of course pinyon nut meats do not preserve, so typically the evidence consists of hull fragments. But just finding nut hulls in sites is not positive proof of dietary use since there is always some questions as to how they arrived in the site. Many critters gather, store, and eat pinyon so one has to be cautious in drawing conclusions. Charred hulls are generally accepted as good evidence for humans gathering and consuming nuts.

Indirect evidence of pinyon use would include grinding stones used for processing pine nuts. Unfortunately, nearly all hard seeds (which were an important part of the diet in the Basin) were also processed in much the same way. It is the case, however, that grinding stones show up early in the sequence at the large cave sites around the Great Salt Lake (Danger and Hogup Caves, for example).

Locations of sites in the pinyon-juniper community is also indirect evidence of pinyon use given the tendency for people to camp in such areas near caches. But, they could also simply be there for the wood, to get up and out of the colder valley bottoms, or to be close to snow fields for water. The presence of stone circles like those described for storage facilities would also argue for pine nut use and storage. These are present in the pinyon-juniper community in the Great Basin. Few have been excavated, however.

Interestingly, unequivocal use of pine nuts for food is somewhat scarce in the archaeological record, especially prior to about 1,500 or 2,000 years ago. Earliest evidence of human use of pinyon (most likely P. edulis) comes from heavily used dry caves in the Great Basin and the Northern Colorado Plateau. In sites such as Old Man Shelter, Atlatl Cave, and Dust Devil Cave (all in southeastern Utah), pinyon is present in the deepest deposits dated to as early as 8,000 years ago (Coulam and Sharpe 1993; Van Ness 1986). On the Colorado Plateau near the juncture of the Green and Colorado Rivers, pinyon appears in quantities in Cowboy Cave by 3,500 years ago (Hewitt 1980:135). Interestingly, the evidence at Cowboy Cave is in the form of pitch on basketry items, spindle whorls, and projectile points as well as nuts and needles. Juniperus osteosperma (twigs and seeds) and Pinus edulis (leaves and seeds) were both present in the deepest layers at Cowboy Cave, although these levels contain no clear evidence of human occupation. These botanical remains demonstrate that pinyon and juniper was present in this portion of the Colorado Plateau by 11,000 years ago (Jennings 1980:19,170).

The earliest dates for pinyon use in the Great Basin come from Danger Cave near Wendover, Utah, well to the north of the dry caves of the Northern Colorado Plateau. Madsen and Rhode (1990) have dated pine seed coats from Danger Cave to -7,410 years ago, although this hull is apparently from limber pine (P. flexilis) rather than pinyon (Rhode and Madsen 1997). Pinyon pine is definitely present at Danger Cave by 6,800 years ago, however. Rhode and Madsen (1997:17) conclude that pine nuts were a part of the diet from the onset of human use of Danger Cave despite the probability that the closest groves of ei ther limber or pinyon pine were at least 25 km to the west. These conclusions are supported in part by finds at Bonneville Estates Cave, just south of Wendover, where pine nuts (apparently pinyon) in good quantities were recovered from levels dated to 6,000 BP (Schroedl 1997). In GatecliffShelter in Monitor Valley, central Nevada, charred cones and twigs document the presence of pinyon in that area by 5,300 years ago and seeds and seed coat fragments are present just slightly later, about 5,200 years ago (Thomas 1983:153,174).

Madsen (1986) has argued that a strong case for an important dietary role for pinyon during these early times is lacking (Madsen 1986). The best evidence for heavy use of pinyon in the Great Basin comes from Crab Cave near the Fish Springs waterfowl refuge where thousands of hulls were found in deposits dating to sometime after 2,000 years ago (Madsen 1979). Interestingly, the closest source of pine nuts for Crab Cave inhabitants is the Deep Creek Mountains that are at least 35 km away. In Kachina Cave on the Utah-Nevada border, two caches dated to 1,350 years ago also yielded large quantities of pine nut hulls, although here pinyon groves are nearby.

In the extreme western Great Basin in Owens Valley of eastern California, archaeologists have found that evidence for intensive use of pinyon does not appear until after about AD 600 or so (Bettinger 1989). Later sites, such as Pinyon House located in the pinyon-juniper community in the White Mountains, contained all the evidences one might expect of heavy pinyon use: hulls, mulIers, cache pits, roasting pits for cones, pinyon hooks, and bedrock mortars. This kind of strong evidence for pinyon exploitation is lacking at earlier sites, although there is evidence of pinyon being present in Owens Valley even earlier than that at Danger Cave. Reynolds (1997:3) reports dates of 8,790 110 BP and 7,880 60 PB from pack rat middens at the north and south end of the White Mountains, for example. None of these dates are from cultural contexts, however, and no evidence exists for human reliance on pinyon prior to the AD 600 date proffered above.

Explanations vary as to why pine nuts don't seem to be used abundantly until the Late Holocene in the Great Basin. Perhaps pinyon only recently migrated into areas such as Owens Valley. Or, perhaps higher ranked foods were more abundant early, making pinyon less attractive. It is also possible that our sample is simply not an accurate representation of past diet.

Also somewhat puzzling is the variability in the evidence for pinyon use at Anasazi sites often located in dense pinyon-juniper woodlands. Rohn 1971, for example, reports few evidences of pinyon use at Mug House at Mesa Verde. It is possible, however, that this scarcity is a function of not looking very closely for plant remains. More recent archaeological reports, such as those from the Grand Canyon area (Sullivan 1992), contain good evidence for pinyon use by Anasazi between AD 800 and AD 1200. In fact, Sullivan found evidence that pinyon and other wild plants (amaranth and chenopod seeds, cactus, grasses) could have been more important than corn. Likewise, Huckell (1992) reports abundant pinyon remains (seeds, seed shells, cone scales) from Anasazi sites just south of the Grand Canyon. Pinyon was also common in Antelope Cave north of the Grand Canyon on the Uinkaret Plateau in levels dated to the Anasazi occupation (AD 700-900) (Janetski and Hall 1983). Antelope Cave is currently 10 to 15 km from the nearest pinyon groves, suggesting that people were transporting pine nuts to the site. At the nearby Pine Nut Site, however, only a few charred needles were found in the float samples despite the site name. A number of possibilities come to mind to explain the site to site differences: preservation, the variation in pinyon production, and sampling bias.

Construction Material

Archaeological evidence ofthe importance of both pinyon and juniper for construction material is ubiquitous. Most fundamental is the use of these woods in house construction. The Fremont used both as did the Anasazi. The number of trees used for house and kiva construction in the Southwest was tremendous. Ray Matheny (1971) has suggested that the demand for pine and juniper for house construction during the maximum expansion of the Anasazi in southeastern Utah between AD 1000 and AD 1250 may have seriously depleted the pinyon-juniper community and may have contributed to the abandonment of the Four Corners region by the Anasazi in the late 13th century AD. The use of both woods for fuel is likewise evident in many archaeological contexts in the Desert West.

Juniper bark fibers are commonly recovered in archaeological contexts both in raw form and woven into textiles. Juniper bark open twined matting, for example, was in burials, perhaps as shrouds. The Mosida burial on Utah Lake, for example, was buried with juniper bark twined matting dating to 5,500 years ago (J anetski and others 1992). Examples of twined juniper bark matting found at Danger Cave date to between 3,000 and 11,000 BP. At Sand Dune Cave on the Utah-Arizona border excavators found bundles of juniper bark dating to the early Basketmaker period (about AD 200) or earlier (Lindsay and others 1968:86). Artifacts made of juniper wood were found in the upper levels of Cowboy Cave. These include small, flat, smoothed rectangles identified as gaming pieces (Janetski 1980:81).


Pinyon and juniper have provided important raw material for native peoples for thousands of years in the Desert West. They depended on these familiar trees for food fuel shelter, and a multitude of other purposes. The e'thno~ graphic data are clear as to these uses. The archaeological data raise a number of interesting questions about pinyon use over space and time. Additional archaeological research will undoubtedly continue to yield evidences of the importance of this unique community in the Desert West.


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