Washoe Winter Village Archaeology

Washoe Indian people regard Western Nevada along the central Sierra Nevada as an important part of their original homeland. Today many Washoe tribal members still live in Western Nevada's valleys adjacent to the Sierra in cities and towns, and on reserved lands—at places such as Coleville, Markleeville, Woodfords, Dresslerville, Carson City, Reno, Doyle, and Susanville.

In the more distant past, Washoe people often identified themselves by where they lived in the winter. Washoe winter camps were located near springs, hot springs, creeks, or rivers in places that were ideal for long-term living. Extended Washoe families lived in villages of two to ten houses that were sited near pine nutting grounds on well-drained sunny southern exposures. The winter house—or gális dáŋal—was a conical brush or bark-covered pole structure ten to twenty feet across with a shallow floor, rock rimmed central fire pit, central smoke hole, and an eastern entrance, sometimes with an attached passageway or vestibule. In spring, summer, and fall most of the family moved around the eastern Sierra Nevada gathering plant foods and hunting game animals. The very young and old did not always go on these seasonal treks, or to Lake Tahoe for fishing. Instead they lived all year in their winter village. In the late fall the family joined the young and old at the winter camp, as they did year after year. Families abandoned winter houses only when it became too expensive to repair them, or occasionally when someone passed away inside the house.

Archaeological study and oral tradition make clear that the Washoe winter village pattern has been in place for a long time in this region. It arose at least 1,300 years ago and lasted until the Washoe people were displaced by outsiders about 150 years ago. The pattern is known by archaeologists as the “Kings Beach Phase.” Prior to 1,300 years ago, archaeological evidence in the same region suggests a much different settlement pattern characterized by single deep house pits and different tool types. This is referred to by archaeologists as the “Martis Phase.”

While village sites are common throughout much of the Americas, archaeologists were slow to recognize them in west central Nevada. It was only with the onset of more intensive land destruction for housing projects or highway development in the 1960s that a small number of village sites were discovered. These contained distinct clusters of house floors, cooking and storage features, distinct artifacts, and datable remains. Such clusters have been found from Honey Lake near Susanville, to Gardnerville, with several known in Reno's Truckee Meadows and Carson City's Eagle Valley.

Archaeological evidence of Washoe winter villages includes sites with from two to twenty-five oval, round, D-shaped, and irregular saucer shaped house floors. These floors are usually four to twenty-one feet in diameter, most with an opening to the east—the direction of the rising sun. Closely associated internal and external features include ashy hearths, rock filled roasting pits, holes for wall or roof supports, and storage pits of many shapes and sizes. House floors from the King's Beach Phase are clean of most refuse. Floors contain only tools and some bone as if swept clean. (The main refuse area is located well away from the houses). Washoe village planning is reflected in the organized layout and spacing of houses and other exterior features. The layout seems to show that there were areas of shared versus private space and defined distances between family and community facilities. At Eagle Valley Village in Carson City, a central larger house floor contained most of the site's projectile points and was thought to be a hunting lodge or home of a hunting leader such as a rabbit “boss” or antelope doctor. Many other house floors at that village were very similar to each other, supporting ideas regarding the egalitarian nature of Washoe society.

Abundant animal bone but few plant remains are found in village sites. They also contain flaked and ground stone tools, and manufacture debris from these stone tools. Pottery, common in the central and southern Great Basin during this time, is conspicuously absent from these villages. (The Washoe people were not known to make pottery.) Animal bone includes highly fragmented rabbit, fewer but equally pulverized deer and antelope, and even fewer bighorn sheep, fish, and mussel shell fragments. Fragmentation of the bones and shells may suggest long term boiling for soups and stews. Plant remains include pine nuts and blazing star, sunflower, and grass seeds. Large amounts of seeds or plant parts are usually not present in the winter village materials, perhaps suggesting that people did not leave the villages until their winter stores were all used.

Flaked stone tools include small arrow points of the Rosegate, Gunther, and Desert series types, although larger dart or spear points associated with the Martis Phase persisted at many later winter village sites. This suggests that the Washoe might have used both bow and arrow and atlatl (dart throwing stick) for part of the Kings Beach Phase. Flaked stone is primarily chert, a flint-like rock, and obsidian rather than basalt as is typical in the Martis Phase, and much of the chert is from local outcrops. Obsidian was mined at several local sources and also acquired by trade from outside the village area at sources such as Bodie Hills to the south near Bridgeport, California, and Medicine Lake Highlands in northeastern California. One common, but distinctive winter village artifact is the hammer-chopper or flaked and highly edge-battered cobble. Some archaeologists have suggested this tool assisted in breaking the rabbit and deer bone found in village sites; others believe it was an all-purpose handstone used for grinding a multitude of plant and animal resources.

The ancient winter village pattern is described in Washoe oral tradition and in other accounts of Washoe culture in west-central Nevada. But the archaeological winter village with its organized house, hearth, storage, and other features is a unique type of site and one rarely found outside of this region. It is important to better understand and preserve these sites for Nevadans and others interested in the lifeways and adaptations of early peoples.

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