Indians of the Northern California Desert

At the time of the first white settlers in California, there were numerous tribes of Native Americans within California. The most populous tribes were situated along the coastal areas where abundant fresh water was available from rivers and streams, and shellfish, game, seeds, roots and fish were a mainstay. On the eastern side of the high Sierra Mountains, the moisture-laden ocean air is kept from the Mojave desert, and the tribes which lived in these areas were much less populous and perhaps more nomadic, as they traveled to obtain their sustenance. The Coso Indians lived south of the Owens Valley region which was inhabited by the Paiute and Mono tribes. To the west, the Tubatulabal tribe inhabited the Kern River area. The Coso were also thought to be related to the Shoshone & Comanche, which covered a large area from the Sierras to the Platte River in Colorado area and into the Texas region. On the south, the Kawaiisu and Chemehuevi ranged over a similar barren habitat of the desert. The Coso Indians, though resident in the area of the Coso Petroglyphs, had apparently lost the knowledge of why they had been made and for what purpose. Perhaps the Indians that lived in the area chose not to convey their significance to the white settler, the tradition itself had vanished by that time, or the petroglyphs had been constructed by another long-gone Indian group. Through innovative, and perhaps, not very accurate means, the oldest petroglyphs in nearby Petroglyph Canyon have been dated to beyond 10,000 years old. Much earlier than when the first white settlers came to this area. The petroglyphs there are apparently old enough to have been made by a race of Native American Indians now long gone.

The Coso Indians lived within the Inyo, Coso, Argus, Panamint and Funeral Mountains. These mountains border Saline Valley, Death Valley, and Panamint Valley today. In the mid 1800s, the tribe was settled on Cottonwood Creek in the northwestern area of Death Valley, south of Bennett Mills on the eastern side of the Panamints, at the mouth of Hall Creek in Panamint Valley, and on the west side of Saline Valley near Hunter Creek at the foot of the Inyo Mountains. Their population was small when settlers arrived, with an estimate of 150 in 1883.

Indians at this time used ceremonial dress which included quill headbands, feathers and skirts of eagle down, and practiced face and body painting using plant and mineral dyes. Woven baskets were covered with pitch in order to hold water. Willow, greasewood, and juniper and sinew were used in the making of bows and arrows, with obsidian used as scrapers, points and ceremonial tools. The main food was Pinyon nuts, with seeds gathered by beating. chia and grass seeds were collected, with small game limited to ground squirrel, rabbit and the then occasional big horn sheep as the chief big game. On the shores of Owens Lake countless grubs of fly larvae were scooped out of shallow water, and dried for food. Indians during this time also used obsidian points and seashells such as dentalium and clamshell disk beads as money. Huts with woven brush and wood supports were habitats for living with a similar style hut covered with earth used as sweat houses by the men. Hand rubbed drills were used in fire making.

It is not an accepted fact amongst archeologists when and how man's migration to the western hemisphere occurred. It is accepted that man arose in Africa, thanks to early evidence of our apparent ancestors. Earliest recorded history also points to there, with plenty of evidence of ancient races, in comparison to North and South America. The standard migration route into North America was by way of the frozen Bering Sea, across a frozen area called Beringia. This path for migration allowed Siberian peoples to migrate into Alaska and further south, ultimately populating the Americas. This was supposed to occur only 10 to 12 thousand years ago. 1 to 2 thousand years ago the bow and arrow were introduced in Alaska, and the invention quickly migrated south to the American Indians. This is relatively easy to track as its well recorded and carbon dating readily available. However certain things don't jive, according to some experts. Recent evidence this writer read stated that DNA samples of Eskimos did not match present day Siberians. The DNA does match Mongolians however. Also, ancient indians, also called Paleo Indians, tools have been found. Hydration measuring techniques have dated Clovis points to 12 - 13000 years Before Present (BP). Drawings have been dated to as much as 17 - 18000 BP using less accurate means. Additional tools have been found in strata 50 - 70 thousand years old. The rocks were not obsidian, and perhaps are not tools at all. The famous Dr Leakey believed they were authentic tools, but there is disagreement. This was at the Calico Early Man site (just do a search online for more info). A lot of information and speculation is available online. To prove man was here before Beringia, what scientisits need is the "smoking gun". An obsidian point in an extinct animal remains would offer excellent dating capabilities. The area of the upper Mojave does offer some unique opportunities thanks to the remoteness and low humidity. 10 to 20 thousand years ago the upper Mojave was very different, with huge lakes like Lake Manly that was 100 miles long and 600 feet deep in places. It was mostly in Panamint Valley. Lakes were in Searles Valley, Freemont Valley above Cantil and Koehn Lake today, Indian Wells Valley, etc. The area just in Owens Valley and northward was where permanent ice fields and glaciers started. The ice covered the norther half of the US. Several Ice Ages have occurred, and this was the most recent. Indian sites have been found skirting the long gone lake fronts. Thanks to the elements and Indian's life style only a few traceable clues exist.

References: A.L. Kroeber Handbook of the Indians of California Dover Publications ISBN 0-486-23368-5 , originally published by the Government Printing Office, WA D.C. in 1925 as the Bulletin 78 of the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution. Information was also used from Walt Bickel memoirs and interviews with area inhabitants. Personal readings and lecture notes were also referenced by the writer.