Humans have lived in the Great Basin for 12,000 to 10,000 years, adapting their economic practices to changes in a generally semi-arid and challenging environment. For most of this period peoples lived by hunting animals, fishing, and gathering wild plants. Hunter-foragers were mobile, moving to different places based on the seasonal availability of various economic resources. Knowledge of where and when these resources were available was the key to making a living in Nevada's semi-arid climate. This hunter-forager economic pattern is punctuated by semi-horticultural cultures in areas of eastern and southern Nevada ca 1,500-700 years ago before a return to hunter-foraging lifeways that continued until Euroamericans entered Nevada.


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Nevada Prehistory

Peoples first entered Nevada and the Great Basin some 12,000 to 10,000 years ago as the Ice Age ended and glaciers across North America finally receded. The region was wetter than today’s climate, with residual Pleistocene lakes, marshes, and wetlands that slowly dried up as the climate changed to a warmer and drier regime, until by 7,000 years ago the large Pleistocene Lakes had dried up. During this period 12,000-7,000 (known as the Paleoarchaic), Nevada was only sparsely settled, with early hunter-foragers focusing on big-game hunting and harvesting the resources of wetlands; settlement appears concentrated on lakes and wetlands. Many parts of the state appear to have only been used for sporadic foraging expeditions and population densities were probably low. Most archaeological remains are of hunting and foraging sites, and characteristic tool types include stemmed projectile points (hafted as spears), large bifacial knives, choppers, and steep edge scrapers.

During the period 7,000-4,000 years ago (Early Archaic) the environment began changing to more arid conditions. Many lakeside marshes disappeared and desert shrubs expanded into lower elevations. Settlement became more permanent and repeated throughout the region and economic strategies diversified according to regional environmental variables. During the winter, populations concentrated in valley floors or near permanent water sources. Use of the spear for hunting appears to have been replaced in favor of large dart points hurled from atlatls or spear-throwers. Milling equipment (manos and metates) become more common, indicated that seeds, tubers, and other plants were harvested.

From 4,000-1,500 years ago (Middle Archaic) it appears that a wider variety of plants and animals were harvested as natural resources were more intensively exploited as populations increased and seasonal rounds became more territorially established. A wider range of milling tools appears in the archaeological record. Caches of artifacts and other materials indicate that storage at times played an important role in decisions about residential mobility, with preferred places repeatedly revisited. Exchange in marine shell and obsidian becomes evident and mastery of textiles is displayed in surviving baskets and other tools made from cordage.

From 1,500 years ago to the period of contact with Euro-Americans in the nineteenth century (Late Archaic), significant environmental, settlement, and technological changes are witnessed, with regional semi-horticultural economies emerging in eastern and southern Nevada. The climate changed toward warmer and drier conditions that characterize the modern climate. Bow and arrow technology was introduced from the west, evidenced by smaller projectile points. Economic practices relied on hunting small mammals and harvesting plants and seeds; milling equipment becomes more elaborate and more frequent at Late Archaic camp sites. Pottery begins to be made around 900 years ago.

In southern and eastern Nevada, economies with variable reliance on horticulture (maize cultivation) and harvesting wild resources develop. In southern Nevada these were apparently introduced from the southwest and mark an Ancestral Puebloan presence, evidenced by distinctive pottery, pit-houses, and above ground architecture. In eastern Nevada, semi-horticultural economies appear to be influenced by the Fremont cultures to the east in Utah. These are also characterized by distinctive domestic architecture (pit houses and above ground structures) but harvesting wild resources seems to have played an important role in their economic practices in addition to horticulture. Both the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont presences in Nevada are associated with distinctive rock art portrayals of the human form.

Around 700 years ago, the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont economies are replaced by economies focused on hunter-foraging (though in ethnographic times, some cultural groups in the south and the east did tend gardens), and some Great Basin archaeologists have suggested that this is when the ancestors of most modern Indian Peoples settled Nevada. It is equally possible that changes in material culture recorded in the archaeological record reflect endogenous social and economic changes in response to climatic fluctuations, shifting distributions of animal and plant species, and influences from neighboring cultures. Future research may help determine whether these social and cultural changes are discernible in the themes and styles of Nevada rock art.

The term "Archaic" is used in North American archaeology to refer to periods characterized by mobile hunter-forager lifeways.
The cultivation of a wide range of plants in small plots of mixed crops. Agriculture, in contrast, focuses on one primary crop farmed in large fields of single crops.