Black Rock Desert Survey

Beginning in 2003, the GBPRU (then Sundance) initiated a long-term program of pedestrian survey in Nevada's Black Rock Desert (Figure 1). Long known for its high density of Paleoindian concave-base and stemmed point sites, the Black Rock Desert continues to yield important clues about the lifeways of Nevada's earliest inhabitants.

Students working in the black rock desert

Figure 1. Surveying for Paleoindian sites in the East Arm of the Black Rock Desert, July 2010.

Our surveys have been directed towards developing a better understanding of how and why Great Basin Paleoindians used the Black Rock Desert. The results suggest that early populations congregated along the shores of Lake Lahontan during the terminal Pleistocene, presumably to harvest the rich aquatic and terrestrial resources found there, especially during the Younger Dryas, ~11,100-10,100 14C B.P., whereas later Archaic groups utilized a broader range of environmental settings. Additionally, our work has been directed at locating and recording Paleoindian sites with extensive assemblages of obsidian and basalt artifacts suitable for source provenance analyses (Figure 2). This work revealed that Paleoindian groups in the Black Rock Desert had socioeconomic ties to northeastern California, northwestern Nevada, and south-central Oregon, but did not possess ties further south in the western Great Basin.

Obsidian stemmed projectile points

Figure 2. Obsidian stemmed projectile points found during pedestrian survey in the Black Rock Desert.

In the final phase of our current work in the Black Rock Desert (Summer of 2012), we will begin looking for Paleoindian sites on pre-Younger Dryas (11,100+ 14C B.P.) Lahontan shorelines. Given that our earlier work has demonstrated that there is a clear relationship between site distribution and pluvial shorelines of different ages, if people were in the Great Basin before ~11,100 14C B.P., then we should find sites clustered along early shorelines, just as they cluster along later shorelines (Figure 3). In a region where open-air Paleoindian sites with well-preserved organics suitable for radiocarbon dating are extremely rare, we may be able to rely on the known age of lakeshore features to infer the age of undated lithic scatters situated on those shorelines. We do not know what we will find during this next phase of work; however, this is a relatively easy hypothesis to test and we will have preliminary results in the fall of 2012.

Map showing location of sites in the Black Rock Desert

Figure 3. Location of sites of known age in the Black Rock Desert. From Adams et al. (2008).