Hunting Mastodons

The Cordilleran Ice Sheet began to spread across present-day Washington state more than 17,000 years ago. The ice blocked the Strait of Juan de Fuca and moved down the eastern side of the Olympics the full length of Puget Sound. During this time, sea levels dropped by about 400 feet. Then the climate warmed and the ice began its slow retreat to the north. The area south of the continental ice sheets was inhabited by megafauna—really big mammals including two kinds of elephants (mammoths and mastodons), camels, giant sloths, big bears, and others—and by humans who sometimes hunted these big animals.

While the mastodon seems to resemble both the extinct wooly mammoth and the modern elephant, it is only distantly related to them. The mastodon diverged from the lineage leading to the mammoth and the elephant about 27 million years ago. It went extinct in North America about 10,500 years ago.

Current evidence suggests that mastodons were forest dwelling animals, feeding on sylvan vegetation, such as coniferous twigs. Their range in the Americas during the Pleistocene era was from Alaska in the north to Honduras in the south. There is no evidence of them in South America.

Mastodons were large animals, standing about 7 feet 7 inches at the shoulder and weighing about 5 tons. Females were usually smaller than males.

About 11,800 BCE, an elderly mastodon which had survived an encounter with an Indian hunter earlier in its life, waded into a small pond near present-day Sequim, Washington where it fell over and died of old age. Indian scavengers quickly butchered the portion of the body which remained above the water, undoubtedly feasting upon mastodon roasts and steaks for several days.

At that time, the main mass of the ice field has drawn back to today’s San Juan Islands. People at the pond where the mastodon had died could still see remnants of the continental glacier.

By 1977, the glacial ice sheets which had once covered western Washington were known primarily by geologists, archaeologists, museum curators, tribal elders, and a few others. There were illustrations in textbooks and museum displays with a focus primarily on the megafauna which lived to the south of the ice sheets. Little was known about the human people, the American Indians, who lived in the area. This all began to change when Claire and Emanuel Manis decided to turn a cattail quagmire near their home into a pond for migrating ducks and geese. Using a backhoe, Emanuel Manis began to dig and at a depth of about six feet he encountered something strange: it appeared to be two tusks, one about four feet long and the other about six feet long. He stopped digging and called Washington State University archaeologist Dr. Richard Daugherty who was conducting archaeological research at the Makah village site of Ozette.

Daugherty, along with zoologist Dr. Carl Gustafson and graduate student Delbert Gilbow began the process of recovering more of the animal’s remains. In a seven-inch piece of rib they noticed an embedded piece of bone about the size of a human thumb. Closer examination under a microscope followed by X-ray examination showed them that it was a bone spear point: it had been pierced by a hunter and had survived. The wound inflicted by the hunter had not been fatal.

The archaeologists find that few artifacts had been left at the site. Among those found by archaeologists was a piece of bone about three inches long and bluntly pointed at each end. It is similar in shape to the spearpoint embedded in the mastodon’s rib. This spearpoint, by the way, had been made from mastodon bone.

The Manis Mastodon Site is important for a number of reasons. First, if there are any academics left who feel that North America was not inhabited until after the great continental ice sheets had melted, this provides one more piece of evidence showing the great time depth of American Indians. Secondly, it shows that Indian people were skillful hunters who hunted a wide variety of both big game and small game.

In 2001, Clare Manis donated the mastodon site on her property near Sequim, Washington to the National Archaeological Conservancy.

 

The Great Basin Tribes

The Great Basin includes the high desert regions between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. It is bounded on the north by the Columbia Plateau and on the south by the Colorado Plateau. It includes all of the present-day states of Nevada and Utah, and portions of Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. This is an area which is characterized by low rainfall and extremes of temperature. The summers in this desert area can be hot, while the winters can be bitterly cold. While it is a physical region that does not seem hospitable to human habitation, Indian people have lived in the Great Basin for thousands of years.

The Great Basin was the last part of the United States to be explored and settled by the European-Americans. When the European-American invasion began in the nineteenth century, the invaders found that it was occupied by several different tribes, including the Bannock, Goshute, Mono, Northern Paiute, Panamint, Shoshone, Southern Paiute, Washo, and Ute.

Linguistically all of the Indian people of the Great Basin, with the exception of the Hokan-speaking Washo, spoke languages which belong to the Numic division of the Uto-Aztecan language family. The linguistic and archaeological data seem to suggest that the Numic-speaking people spread into the Great Basin from southeastern California. The homeland of the Numic-speaking groups in the Great Basin is generally seen as the Death Valley area.

The Numic languages appear to have divided into three sub-branches—Western, Central, and Southern—about 2,000 years ago. About a thousand years ago, the Numic-speaking people expanded northward and eastward.

The Ute:

 The Ute tribal territory included much of present-day Colorado and Utah. Much of this territory lies within the Colorado Plateau, a geological anomaly characterized by sedimentary rocks that have been lifted to an elevation of more than 6,000 feet. This is a semi-arid region.

 While the groups which are considered Ute shared a common language as well as other cultural features, they were never a single politically unified tribe. There was never a single tribal council or anything close to a supreme chief. Each of the groups, generally called “bands,” was politically autonomous. Membership in the bands was fluid and there was high mobility between the bands. The Ute bands include:

(1) the Weminuche (Weeminuche) or Ute Mountain Ute whose homeland is the San Juan drainage of the Colorado River.

(2) the Tabeguache (also known as Uncompahgre).

(3) the Grand River band.

(4) the Yampa whose homeland is in northwestern Colorado.

(5) the Uintah whose homeland ran from Utah Lake east through the Uinta Basin.

(6) the Muache (Moache) whose homeland ranged south along the Sangre de Cristos as far south as Taos, New Mexico.

(7) the Capote of the San Luis Valley and the upper Rio Grande.

(8) the Sheberetch in the area of present-day Moab, Utah.

(9) the Sanpits (San Pitch) in the Sanpete Valley in central Utah.

(10) the Timanogots near Utah Lake.

(11) Pahvant who lived in the deserts surrounding Sevier Lake, Utah.

(12) the White River (Parusanuch and Yamparika) in the White and Yampa River systems of Colorado.

After marriage, the couple would usually live with the wife’s band (matrilocal residence in anthropological terminology). This means that the bands were usually composed of several nuclear families which were related to each other through the female line.

The area occupied by the Ute was buffalo country and so buffalo, as well as mountain sheep, mule deer, whitetail deer, elk, antelope, moose, and rabbits, were utilized for their subsistence. The people also gathered a wide variety of different wild plants.

In hunting herd animals, the Ute often used drives in which the animals were driven into narrow areas where they could be more easily harvested. The Weminuche band hunted deer with poison arrows.

Shoshone:

The Shoshone (also spelled Shoshoni) take their name from the Shoshone word sosoni’ which refers to a type of high-growing grass. Some of the Plains tribes referred to the Shoshone as “Grass House People” which referred to the conically-shaped houses made from the native grasses. They were also referred to as the “Snakes” or “Snake People” by some Plains groups. This term comes from the sign which the people used for themselves in hand sign languages. The sign actually represents the salmon to the Shoshone, but among the Great Plains tribes, who were unfamiliar with the salmon, it was misinterpreted as meaning “snake.”

The Shoshone are often divided into four general groups:

(1) the Western Shoshone who lived in central Nevada, northeastern Nevada, and Utah. Some anthropologists have listed 43 different Western Shoshone groups.

(2) Northern Shoshone who lived in southern Idaho and adopted the horse culture after 1800.

(3) Eastern Shoshone of Wyoming who adopted many of the traits of Plains Indian culture.

(4) Southern Shoshone who live in the Death Valley area on the extreme southern edge of the Great Basin.

The Northern Shoshone groups include the Fort Hall Shoshone, the Lemhi Shoshone, the Mountain Shoshone, the Bruneau Shoshone, and the Boise Shoshone. The Lemhi Shoshone hunted buffalo in western Montana, but depended primarily upon salmon for their subsistence. The Bruneau Shoshone were not a horse people and depended largely on salmon and camas. The Boise Shoshone also used salmon and camas as primary foods and also hunted buffalo in Wyoming and Montana.

Shoshone bands, like other groups in the Great Basin and Plateau Culture Areas, were often named after their dominant food source. Thus mountain-dwelling Shoshone were known as Tukudika (“eaters of bighorn sheep” or sheep eaters). Other Shoshone groups include the Agaidika (salmon eaters), Padehiyadeka (elk eaters), Yahandeka (groundhog eaters), Pengwideka (fish eaters), Kamuduka (rabbit eaters), Tubaduka (pine-nut eaters), and Hukandeka (seed eaters), and the Kukundika (also spelled Kutsundeka; buffalo eaters).

Among the Western Shoshone, the most important game animals were antelope and bighorn. In hunting antelope, the animals would be driven along a V-shaped runway into a corral which had been constructed of brush, stones, and poles. A medicine person who had the power to capture antelopes’ souls through dreams, songs, and rituals, would aid the hunt by drawing the animals’ souls, and thus the animals themselves, into the corral.

Bannock:

The Bannock, who call themselves Bana’kwut (“Water People”), were called Buffalo Eaters and Honey Eaters by other tribes. The Shoshone referred to them with the term “pannaitti.” Brigham Madsen, in his book The Bannock of Idaho, reports that the Bannock

“migrated from the desert areas of southeastern Oregon to the more propitious and well-watered region found at the confluence of the Portneuf and Blackfoot streams with the Snake River.”

In the Snake and Lemhi River valleys and in the Bridger Basin, the Bannock came into close contact with the Shoshone and the two groups often intermarried. Today, the term “Sho-Ban” is often used to refer to the two tribes. Culturally, the two groups shared a common heritage and a similar worldview. They also spoke closely related languages. With intermarriage, many became bilingual.

Goshute (Gosiute):

The traditional homeland of the Goshute was south and west of Great Salt Lake. They lived in the Toole, Rush, and Skull valleys. There are many who feel that the Goshute are linguistically and culturally Shoshone. The Goshute bands include Cedar Valley, Deep Creek, Rush Valley, Skull Valley, Toole Valley, and Trout Creek.

Historically these people have been designated as Go-Sha-Utes, Goshee Utes, Goshoots, Go-shutes, Gosh Yuta, Go-ship Utes, and Goships. The term “Goshute” seems to come from the Shoshone term “kusippih” which has a meaning of “dry earth,” probably in reference to the marginal land which they inhabited.

Paiute:

There are fifteen Southern Paiute bands: Chemehuevi, Las Vegas, Moapa, Paranigat, Panaca, Shivwits, St. George, Gunlock, Cedar, Beaver, Panguitch, Uinkaret, Kaibab, Kaiparowits, and San Juan. In the northern part of the Great Basin, the bands tended to call themselves after a particular food source: “salmon eaters,” “mountain sheep eaters,” and so on. In the south, the band names tended to be geographical.

 

The Meadowcroft Rockshelter

The Meadowcroft Rockshelter is an ancient American Indian site located on the north bank of Cross Creek about 30 miles southwest of present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Cross Creek is a tributary of the Ohio River. Archaeologists generally agree that American Indians were using this site by 14,500 years ago and continued to use it until the late 18th century. When it was first occupied by American Indians, the Laurentide Glacier was just 223 kilometers (134 miles) to the north. Meadowcroft was a temporary site used for hunting, food gathering, and food-processing activities.

Meadowcroft is a stratified, multicomponent site. Stratigraphy is an archaeological concept based on the Law of Superposition:  “in a series of layers and interfacial features, as originally created, the upper units of stratification are younger and the lower are older, for each must have been deposited on, or created by the removal of, a pre-existing mass of archaeological stratification.”  In other words, digging down into a stratified site means that the youngest material will be toward the surface; greater physical depth means greater temporal depth. Stratigraphy provides archaeologists with relative dating: an artifact can be said to be older than another artifact if it is found at a deeper stratigraphic layer.

At Meadowcroft there are eleven strata. Within these strata archaeologists uncovered a variety of different kinds of organic materials which were dated through radiocarbon assay.

The earliest occupants of the Meadowcroft Rockshelter were generalized hunter-gatherers who utilized a technology which archaeologists call the Miller Complex. The complex includes the production of blade tools produced from polyhedral blade cores and bifacial, unfluted, projectile points.

Later occupations at the site include representatives of all of the major cultural periods for eastern North America.

Stone tools provide some insights into ancient cultures as evidence of subsistence activities, such as hunting, fishing, and wild plant gathering. In addition, stone tools can provide some information about connections with other peoples and geographic regions.  With regard to the geography of the stone tools found at Meadowcroft, archaeologists Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley, in their book Across Atlantic Ice: The Origins of America’s Clovis Culture, write:  “Although most of the raw material used by the Meadowcroft flintknappers were of local origin, exceptions include Flint Ridge chert from eastern Ohio, Kanawha chert from West Virginia, and Onondaga chert from New York.”

With regard to dating, archaeologists Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley write:  “We agree that Meadowcroft may have been occupied as early as 19,200 years ago, and was clearly occupied by around 14,600 years ago by people whose biface and blade technology could be ancestral to Clovis.”

While a number of archaeologists disagree—some strongly—with the 19,200 year date and have claimed that the sample must have been contaminated, repeated laboratory analysis has consistently failed to detect any contamination.

Meadowcroft was last occupied by American Indians in the late 1700s. Archaeological excavation of the site started in 1973 and the site is generally considered one of the most carefully excavated sites in North America. Meadowcroft also changed the way many archaeologists envisioned the early habitation of North America: the site is much earlier than many would like. It means that people were living in North America prior to the end of the last ice age.

The Meadowcroft Rockshelter was named a National Historic Landmark in 2005. Today the site includes a museum and the re-creation of a 1570s Monongahela Culture Indian Village.