Extreme Alpine Foraging: Explaining High Altitude Residences in the Great Basin

Part of: Society for American Archaeology 80th Annual Meeting, San Francisco, CA (2015)

Why would foraging families spend their summers atop the highest places in their world? Great Basin archaeologists have long believed that the extreme alpine heights were used almost exclusively for logistic hunting of bighorn in prehistoric times. This all changed with the discoveries at Alta Toquima (central Nevada) and the White Mountains (southeastern California), where multiple residential sites occur at elevations exceeding 11,000 feet. This session compares and contrasts archaeological evidence from both areas, and begs the question of why—despite decades of searching—no comparable alpine residential complexes anywhere else in the Intermountain West.

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  • Documents (11)

  • Alpine Adaptive and Paleoenvironmental Change at Alta Toquima (central Nevada) (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only David Thomas.

    Why did some Great Basin foraging families spend their summers atop the very highest place in their world? Julian Steward briefly considered this question in the 1930s, but the issue resurfaced with the chance discovery of Alta Toquima, a 31-pithouse residential site at 11,000 feet. More than 150 14C determinations from Alta Toquima and nearby Gatecliff Shelter permit fine-tuned comparisons of cultural and paleoclimatic change spanning the last 7000 years. The Alta Toquima residences track both...

  • Bighorn Sheep Processing in the White Mountains, California (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Shannon Goshen. Jacob L. Fisher.

    Previous research in the eastern Great Basin using stable isotope analysis of faunal remains suggests that bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) responded to climate change by shifting their ranges to higher elevations during warm intervals. A shift in sheep ranges would have increased travel and transportation costs for central place foragers based in lower elevation valleys. We expect that hunters responded to the increased costs in a number of ways, including altering settlement strategies and...

  • Divergent Histories: Prehistoric Use of Alpine Habitats in the Toquima and Toiyabe Ranges, Central Great Basin (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Tod Hildebrandt.

    Alpine villages are extremely rare in the Great Basin. To date, villages located at elevations above 10,000 ft. are only known to occur in the White Mountains and the Toquima Range. Demographic forcing and climatic change has been used to explain the existence of these villages, but these propositions do not identify more specific selective pressures that led to the establishment of high-elevation villages in some ranges but not others. Comparison of artifact distributions and environmental...

  • Environmental Limitations, Alpine Villages and Logistical Strategies in the Northern White Mountains (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Christopher Morgan. Mark Giambastiani. Robert Bettinger. Marielle Black.

    Recent investigations in the extremely remote and previously unsurveyed northern White Mountains have identified a pattern of alpine land use consistent with many other alpine regions in and around the Great Basin: one focused mainly on artiodactyl hunting. But sites similar to the alpine villages in the southern portion of the range were discovered at the subalpine-alpine ecotone. GIS analyses suggest the relative dearth of high elevation villages in the north is explained by environmental...

  • High Elevation Archaeology of the Inyo Mountains in Relation to Adjacent Ranges (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Mark Basgall. Bridget Wall.

    In the years since Bettinger's seminal studies in the White Mountains of eastern California, there have been projects completed at high elevations in two adjacent ranges, the Inyo Mountains to the south and the Sierra Nevada to the west of Owens Valley. These efforts have been of limited scope, but seem to show similarities as well as important differences in patterns of land use over time. Some extensive surface collections from the Inyo range have recently become available for examination,...

  • Looking at High-Altitude Obsidian Use in the Great Basin (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Richard Hughes.

    Until recently, most of what was known about the prehistoric use and conveyance of obsidian in the Great Basin was derived from analysis of time-sensitive artifacts recovered from caves and rockshelters. Over the past 35 years, however, archaeological research conducted in high-altitude settings has provided new insights about synchronic and diachronic patterning unique from many lowland assemblages. This paper will present the results of obsidian provenance analysis from sites in the White...

  • Middle Archaic Expansion into High Elevation Habitats: A View from the Southwestern Great Basin (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only William Hildebrandt. Kelly McGuire.

    Several researchers have hypothesized that high elevation habitats were not intensively used until after 4000 cal BP when lowland settlements became more stable and logistical hunting organization emerged. This paper evaluates this hypothesis by comparing the relative frequency of Pinto versus Elko/Humboldt series projectile points across a variety of lowland and upland settings in the White Mountains/Owens Valley area. SAA 2015 abstracts made available in tDAR courtesy of the Society for...

  • More than a Bivouac, Less than a Village: Middle Archaic Use of Great Basin Alpine and Other Uplands (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Michael Delacorte. Mark E. Basgall.

    The role of Great Basin alpine/upland habitats within broader land-use strategies has long been debated. We explore upland and lowland data from either side of the White Mountain highlands to reconstruct late Middle Archaic (~1350-2500 B.P.) use of regional landscapes. This information suggests that regionally wide-ranging, logistically organized patrilineal groups made seasonal use of alpine and other uplands for late summer/fall hunting and gathering prior to winter encampment in valley...

  • Obsidian Sourcing and the Origin of the Occupants of the White Mountains High Altitude Villages (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Jason Edmonds.

    The behaviors discussed in ethnographic accounts of the western Great Basin valleys vary widely and unexpectedly. Although both Owens Valley and Fish Lake Valley were inhabited by Eastern Mono speaking groups in historic times, their population density, settlement, subsistence, and sociopolitical organization were markedly different. Archaeological debate centers on whether these differences result from historic contact or if they have some meaningful time depth into prehistory. Situated between...

    DOCUMENT Citation Only David Rhode.

    Prehistoric high altitude occupation sites in the White Mountains and Toquima Range contain archaeobotanical assemblages that inform on the use of plant resources both alpine in origin and imported from lower altitudes. Plant assemblages from the two areas show many similarities in the range of plant resources represented, as well as evident differences that reflect variable modes of high altitude living across the Great Basin. This presentation compares the plant materials from the White...

  • White Mountains Alpine Village Pattern (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Robert Bettinger.

    The alpine zone (above 10,000 feet) of White Mountains of eastern California is the most extensive, and by far the most intensively occupied by aboriginal groups, in the Great Basin. The earliest consistent use, beginning about 5500 BP, is by hunting parties. Beginning sometime after A.D. 600, the White Mountains village residential pattern is distinctive, featuring one or more well-built dwellings, well-developed middens, and extensive assemblages of chipped and ground stone. While hunting was...