Ancient Nevada: Ancient Civilizations
Second of six-part series explores clues left behind by the earliest Nevadans.
BY ERIC CACHINERO
Thousands of years before the Great Pyramid of Giza, Machu Picchu, and Stonehenge were built, ancient Nevadans were leaving their own existential clues. Some of these clues—time capsules delivering messages about the behavior of man—sat preserved deep in the recesses of caves for millennia. Others—carved into exposed limestone—withstood the test of time, erosion, and destruction, and we learn from them still.
If a modern-day Nevadan and a hunter-gatherer of the Great Basin could somehow meet face to face, they would each probably swear they made contact with alien life. An air-conditioned suburban duplex would surely be as bizarre to an ancient Nevadan as a cave dwelling would be to us today.
Modernity seems unfathomably disparate to what it did roughly 15,000 years ago. Almost nothing we interact with in our daily lives existed back then, save the soil that makes up our great state. It’s on this same soil that ancient man thrived during the days when hitting a jackpot meant finding food and shelter for the night.
THE ORIGINAL NATIVE NEVADANS
Though there is much we don’t know about the history of ancient Nevadans—and the topic is a source of debate—it is generally accepted that hunter-gatherers made their way into western North America and into the Great Basin somewhere around 15,000-10,000 B.C. In the early days, these people were broadly referred to as Paleoindians, and groups commonly consisted of 20-50 members that moved from place to place as necessity demanded.
Nevada’s climate was changing 10,000 years ago, and resources abounded. Seeds and pinenuts were aplenty and hunting grounds allowed ancient man to thrive in the Great Basin. Ancient Nevadans lived in caves, as evidenced by several in the northern Nevada area. Toquima, Lovelock, and Spirit Caves—just a few of the many caves once occupied—show evidence that these sites were used for shelter, food storage, and even burial sites.
During the many millennia that ancient man occupied the Great Basin, food-gathering behaviors changed. Weapons like the atlatl—a spear-thrower designed to hunt small and large game—and the bow and arrow that were so heavily relied upon began to be supplemented by agriculture. Small hunter-gatherer groups began to form larger bands as they migrated and reproduced. Over time, different tribes of American Indians emerged, each with its own set of traditions, customs, and stories.
In 2013, a discovery was made that shifted our understanding of ancient man’s timeline. Messages carved into soft limestone near dry Winnemucca Lake come in the form of petroglyphs ranging from simple lines to complex shapes. It’s not what they depict that’s so remarkable, rather their age. It is believed that the glyphs were created between 10,000 and 14,800 years ago. Prior to dating these petroglyphs, scientists believed the oldest in North America were in Oregon, and were carved just some 6,700 years ago.
Ancient Nevadans didn’t just leave their mysterious marks in the northern part of the state, though. Many southern Nevada locations, including Valley of Fire State Park and Grapevine Canyon near Laughlin, contain extensive petroglyphs, dating between several hundred to several thousand years ago. The markings are believed to depict everything from hunting grounds to religious symbols.
THE LOST CITY
Man has occupied areas in southern Nevada as hunter-gatherer groups throughout the millennia, and later incorporated agriculture, built permanent structures, and formed developed settlements. Curator, archaeologist, and interim-Director of the Lost City Museum in Overton Mary Beth Timm says the earliest occupation of the southern Nevada area by the Paleoindians occurred during 11,150-10,830 B.C., evidenced by fluted points recovered at sites throughout Clark County. She adds that during the Pueblo II period (900-1,150 A.D.), a more-advanced civilization of Ancestral Puebloans emerged with improved agriculture.
“These people lived in pueblos; practiced horticulture of squash, corn, beans, and mesquite; and traveled to hunt larger game in the mountains during the summer,” she says.
The Lost City (officially named Pueblo Grande de Nevada) does not get its name from an Indiana Jones knockoff, though. The legacy of these early peoples was almost erased from the earth, buried beneath the Mojave Desert’s shifting sands. In 1924, excavations began, uncovering an archeological legacy. Ancestral Puebloans’ westernmost settlement has unveiled much about the life of some of Nevada’s oldest developed civilizations. With the subsequent creation of Hoover Dam, however, much of the history was covered by trillions of gallons of water, becoming lost once again.
Next issue, we’ll explore Nevada’s diverse landscapes
and learn how they were formed.