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12.12: Great Basin Culture

  • Page ID
    72314
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    Learning Objective

    • Describe the culture of the Great Basin civilizations

    Key Points

    • Between 10,500 BCE and 9,500 BCE (11,500 – 12,500 years ago), the broad-spectrum, big game hunters of the Great Plains began to focus on a single animal species: the bison.
    • Paleo-Indians were not numerous, and population densities were quite low during this time.
    • These bison-oriented indigenous peoples inhabited a portion of the North American continent known as the Great Basin.
    • The climate in the Great Basin was very arid, which affected the lifestyles and cultures of its inhabitants.

    Terms

    cultural region

    A cultural region is inhabited by a culture that does not limit their geographic coverage to the borders of a nation state, or to smaller subdivisions of a state.

    metates

    A morter and grind stone tool used for processing grain and seeds.

    Numic languages

    A branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family. Includes seven languages spoken by American Indian peoples traditionally living in the Great Basin, Colorado River Basin, and southern Great Plains.

    Between 10,500 BCE and 9,500 BCE (11,500 – 12,500 years ago), the broad-spectrum, big game hunters of the Great Plains began to focus on a single animal species: the bison, an early cousin of the American Bison. The earliest of these bison-oriented hunting traditions is known as the Folsom tradition. Folsom peoples traveled in small family groups for most of the year, returning yearly to the same springs while others favored locations on higher grounds. There they would camp for a few days, moving on after erecting a temporary shelter, making and/or repairing stone tools, or processing meat. Paleo-Indians were not numerous, and population densities were quite low during this time.

    These bison-oriented indigenous peoples mostly inhabited a portion of the North American continent known as the “cultural region” of the Great Basin. The Great Basin is the region between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, in what is now modern-day Nevada, Utah, California, Idaho, Wyoming, and parts of Oregon. The original inhabitants of the region are believed to have arrived as early as 10,000 BCE. The climate in the Great Basin was and is very arid; this affected the lifestyles and cultures of its inhabitants.

    image
    Map showing the Great Basin. The Great Basin is a multi-state endorheic area surrounded by the Pacific Watershed of North America, home to the pre-Columbian indigenous peoples of the Great Basin.

    Language

    While anthropologists can point to many distinct peoples throughout the region, most peoples of the Great Basin shared certain common cultural elements that distinguished them from other surrounding cultures. Except for the Washoe, most of the groups spoke Numic languages. Some groups may have not have spoken Numic languages, but no relics of their linguistic patterns remain today. There was considerable intermingling among the groups, who lived peacefully and often shared common territories. These groups were all predominantly hunters and gatherers. As a result of these similarities, anthropologists use the terms “Desert Archaic” or more simply “The Desert Culture” to refer collectively to the Great Basin tribes.

    Lifeways

    Desert Archaic peoples required great mobility to follow seasonally available food supplies. The use of pottery was rare because of its weight, but intricate baskets were woven that could be used to hold water, cook food, and winnow grass seeds. Baskets were also used for storage, including the storage of pine nuts. Heavy items such as metates were cached rather than carried between foraging areas. Agriculture was not practiced within the Great Basin itself, although it was practiced in adjacent areas. The area was too dry, and even modern agriculture in the Great Basin requires either large mountain reservoirs or deep artesian wells. Likewise, the Great Basin tribes had no permanent settlements, although winter villages might be revisited winter after winter by the same groups of families. In the summer groups would split; the largest social grouping was usually the nuclear family, an efficient response to the low density of food supplies.

    Religion

    Because Great Basin peoples did not come into contact with European-Americans or African Americans until comparatively later in North American history, many groups were able to maintain their traditional tribal religions. These peoples were leading proponents of cultural and religious renewals during the 19th century. Two Paiute prophets, Wodziwob and Wovoka, introduced the Ghost Dance as a means to commune with departed loved ones and bring renewals of buffalo herds and precontact lifeways. The Ute Bear Dance also emerged in the Great Basin, as did the Sun Dance.

    Peyote religion flourished in the Great Basin as well, particularly among the Ute who used peyote obtained through trade and other potent ceremonial plants. Ute religious beliefs borrowed heavily from Plains Indians after the arrival of the horse. Northern and Uncompahgre Ute were among the only group of indigenous peoples known to create ceremonial pipes out of salmon alabaster and rare black pipestone found in creeks that border the southeastern slops of the Uinta Mountains in Utah and Colorado. The Uncompahgre Ute are also among the first documented peoples to utilize the effect of mechanoluminescene with quartz crystals to generate light in ceremonies used to call spirits. Special ceremonial rattles were made from buffalo rawhide and filled with clear quartz crystals collected from the mountains of Colorado and Utah. These ceremonial rattles were considered extremely powerful religious objects.

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