Ancient Nevada, Part 2: Civilizations
March – April 2017
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 pine nuts 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.
According to an article published in the January 1951 issue of Nevada Magazine, Nevada State Museum workers uncovered fossilized bones of a horse in Crypt Cave, located along the old Lake Lahontan shoreline. Before work was complete, however, vandals raided the cave, removing and destroying the horse fossils and some parts of human skeletons. As a result, the state announced they would impose heavy penalties to similar acts in the future.
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.
It can be difficult to fully grasp just how long ancient man thrived on the land that would someday become Nevada. Thousands of years of harsh weather, cave dwellings, game hunting, and ancient technological advancements contributed to the story of our state’s oldest natives. And though these civilizations did an exceptional job at leaving clues as to the way they lived their lives, we’ll never truly understand the depths.
A GIANT MYSTERY
According to Paiute legend, a band of red-haired giants called Si-Te-Cah once inhabited Lovelock Cave. Skeletal remains were uncovered red-haired that some argued fit the description of the race of redheaded behemoths, though it is said that they were destroyed before anyone could confirm their authenticity. Along with the giant bones, irregularly split human bones were found, leading to the rumor that the giants were cannibalistic in nature and had extracted the marrow.
SPIRIT CAVE MAN
BY FRANK X. MULLEN
About 10,600 years ago, at the tail end of the last Ice Age, loved ones buried a tribal elder’s body in a shallow cave near what would become Fallon. His partially mummified remains, known as Spirit Cave Man, were unearthed in 1940, but his antiquity wasn’t determined until tests were done in 1994.
His people—descendants of the continent’s original population—lived in a marsh left by the vanishing Lake Lahon- tan. The climate was changing, turning warmer and drier. All indications are the first Nevadans adapted to that change as well as any people on Earth. They caught fish; hunted birds, antelope, and rabbits; and weaved beautiful mats and storage bags. Spirit Cave Man died in his 40s, a long life for the period. His remains indicate his people cared for him, nursed him, and laid his body to rest.
Nevada tribal governments said their people occupied the Great Basin since the dawn of time and claimed the man as their relative. They wanted to rebury him so he could resume his trek into the next world. They opposed further research. Anthropologists said the mummy could provide clues to the prehistory of North America and argued for more study. Some scientists theorized the man was representative of a people who occupied the continent before ancestors of modern Indians arrived. A legal tug-of-war stretched over two decades. In 2015, the Fallon Paiute-Sho- shone Tribe agreed not to oppose DNA testing and the federal government made plans to give the remains to the tribe.
DNA analysis last year revealed Spirit Cave Man was American Indian, although major elements of his genome are more closely related to Central and South American Indians than to any North American tribal people. His genetic mutations were a unique blend passed down from ancestors who lived in Siberia and East Asia more than 20,000 years ago. His DNA and that of other ancient remains indicate humans arrived on this continent from the eastern edge of Siberia more than 150 centuries ago. They probably migrated along the Pacific Coast, and their descendants spread south and east to populate the Americas. In a way, the Nevada tribes were right: the man’s genetic signature exists in American Indians and among no other populations, living or extinct. The New World birthed a new people. In November 2016, the ancient one’s remains were surrendered to the Fallon tribe for reburial. The oldest Nevadan has resumed his journey to the next life.