Linguistic archaeology: Prehistoric population movements and cultural identity in the southwest Great Basin and far southern Sierra Nevada (California)

Alan Philip Gold
Plant Sciences Dept., University of California, Davis
July, 2005


Scholars posit contrasting models of the ethnic identity and language/population movements of prehistoric peoples in the southwestern Great Basin and far southern Sierra Nevada. These models favor either in situ cultural development or population replacement. Archaeological data are used to examine past movements of peoples speaking Numic and Tubatulabalic languages and to evaluate the models. Seven archaeological studies in the Kern Plateau and Scodie Mountains areas of the Sierra Nevada are reviewed. In the Kern Plateau interior and the Isabella Basin, evidence favors the hypothesis that the Tubatulabal language and cultural tradition are of long standing. Archaeological sites show continuous, unbroken occupation from the historic era back 2500 years or more. The Sierra Nevada crest and the southwestern Great Basin, in contrast, witnessed significant subsistence-settlement changes at the beginning of the Haiwee Period (ca. A.D. 600).
These variations may indicate culturally distinct, sequential populations responding to environmental change. I argue that these shifts reflect distinctive Numic adaptations. Archaeological data support the hypothesis that pre-Numic occupations exhibit cultural continuity from the Newberry Period (1500 B.C.-A.D. 600) into the early Haiwee interval (A.D. 600-1000). Numic expressions show marked continuities from the Haiwee Period (A.D. 600-1300) through the Marana interval (A.D. 1300-1850) and into the historic era. The in-migrating Numic most likely produced simple, scratched style rock drawings and later on, during the historic era, Coso Style paintings. In contrast, within the Coso Range, growing evidence now suggests that Coso Representational Style petroglyphs were produced only by pre-Numic groups largely during the late Newberry (500 B.C-A.D. 600) and early Haiwee (A.D. 600-1000) periods. Petroglyph manufacture appears to have ceased abruptly, in the midst of peak production and elaboration, during the Haiwee Period possibly because of the depletion of the local bighorn sheep herds. Archaeological data and limited mitochondrial DNA studies are also consistent with the idea that Numic populations eventually replaced or absorbed pre-Numic groups. During the late Haiwee era (A.D. 1000-1300) Numic peoples apparently expanded out of their former heartland and began migrations northward and to the east, dispersing throughout most of the Great Basin.