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Cave and Rockshelter Testing Program

Among the questions that GBPRU research is aimed at addressing are: (1) when did people arrive in the Great Basin?; (2) what is the temporal relationship between fluted and stemmed projectile points?; and (3) what types of resources did Paleoindians exploit in the Great Basin? Because caves and rockshelters generally preserve organic materials and subsistence remains amendable for radiocarbon dating more so than open-air sites, the GBPRU has embarked a long-term research program to find terminal Pleistocene/early Holocene occupations with the potential to address these questions. This work involves visiting known but untested sites, surveying drainages for undiscovered caves and rock shelters, and revisiting previously excavated or looted sites that may still contain the potential to house early deposits (Figure 1).

Students in an untested rockshelter

Figure 1. Evaluating the potential of an untested rockshelter, July 2011.

Paleoindian occupations, especially those containing fluted points, are extremely rare in Great Basin caves and rockshelters. Despite that fact, we must continue the search for such sites to definitively address the questions outlined above. Typically, we excavate one or two 1m x 1m test pits in each shelter of interest. Recently, this work has taken us to southern Oregon and the Bonneville Basin of western Utah (Figures 2 and 3).

Student excavating

Figure 2. Excavating through middle Holocene sediment in a shelter in western Utah, July 2011.

Two students working on the excevation

Figure 3. Excavating middle-to-early Holocene deposits in a shelter in southern Oregon, June 2011.

Although our cave and rockshelter testing program is primarily aimed at finding sites with terminal Pleistocene cultural deposits in the Great Basin, it also has the ability to provide paleoenvironmental and culture historical data for later time periods in different parts of the Great Basin. We use assemblages from later periods to garner as much data as we can about early, middle, and late Archaic lifeways and work to match each assemblage with undergraduate and graduate students interested in addressing particular research questions. For example, graduate student Stephen LaValley and undergraduate student Kristina Wiggins are currently working with the lithic assemblage from Paiute Creek Shelter, a site in Nevada's Black Rock Desert that was occupied continuously throughout the late Holocene. Similarly, graduate students Peter Carey and Emily Middleton are working with the early-to-middle Holocene lithic assemblage from LSP-1, a small shelter in southern Oregon. There, we uncovered several Cascade projectile points (Figure 4) associated with four radiocarbon dates ranging between 8,290 and 8,670 14C B.P. Jackrabbits dominate the faunal assemblage there, and our preliminary hypothesis is that they may have been processed at LSP-1 for transport elsewhere in a manner similar to that reported by Dave Schmitt, Karen Lupo, and David Madsen at Camels Back Cave in the Bonneville Basin. More in-depth analyses of the faunal from LSP-1 by graduate students will either support or refute this hypothesis.

Diagram of Casacade Points

Figure 4. Casacade points from LSP-1, southern Oregon.

In addition to providing data on how specific locations were used, our cave and rockshelter testing program will ultimately provide a robust dataset that can be used to test hypotheses about diachronic shifts in the use of such sites across space and time. This information can also be used in conjunction with data derived from large-scale survey projects, which provide a picture of changing landscape use of open-air locations. Together, these two bodies of information can be used to evaluate and refine existing models of prehistoric lifeways in different parts of the Great Basin.

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University of Nevada, Reno

University of Nevada, Reno
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