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Wash History

Prehistoric People

Archaeological sites along the Las Vegas Wash suggest that the area's water, plant, and animal resources made the locale an attractive habitation area since around AD 600, and possibly earlier. The discovery of a fluted spear point, lying on a terrace north of the Wash, offers tantalizing evidence that human use of the area may extend back in time 12,000 years.

A good temporal framework of the prehistory of Las Vegas Valley has been elusive. Elsewhere in the Great Basin and the Southwest, archaeologists have had the advantage of chronological "Rosetta stones" to decipher regional prehistories. Usually a region's "Rosetta stone" is a cave or rock shelter that was occupied over most of prehistory. Careful excavation of the buried cultural deposits allows archaeologists to identify stylistic differences in artifacts that can be correlated to blocks of time. Ceramic decoration styles, projectile points, and basketry are all time-sensitive artifacts - that is, they change through time. The distribution of complexes of similar artifact styles through time and space allows archaeologists to identify prehistoric "cultures" (Prehistoric cultures are groups of similar artifact types and should not be equated with true cultures or ethnic groups).

Based upon recent work, a culture history specific to the Las Vegas Wash and Las Vegas Valley has been developed by Roberts, Seymour, and Ahlstrom (2000). The cultural chronology summarized on the following table uses some period names from previous studies in nearby regions, but has been updated to focus on the Las Vegas Basin and more specifically the Las Vegas Wash.

These points would have been hafted to a thrusting spear, and used to kill now-extinct large mammals, or megafauna, including mammoths, horses, and bison. A Clovis point recently found near Las Vegas Wash is the first evidence of the Clovis tradition in Clark County. Other Paleo-Archaic period evidence has been found at the Tule Springs area, northwest of Las Vegas on the Las Vegas Wash; the remains of mammoths, camels, and stone tools have been found in this area.

Chronological Sequence for Las Vegas Wash
Date Range
Paleo-Archaic     10,000-5,500 B.C.
    Fluted point tradition 10,000-9,000 B.C.
    Stemmed point tradition 10,000-5500 B.C.
Archaic Middle   5500-3000 B.C.
  Late   3300 B.C.-A.D. 300
Ceramic Early   A.D. 300-1000
  Middle Yuman (Patayan/Mohave) A.D. 1000-1500
  Late   A.D. 1500-1850
Historic Paiute/Chemhuevi     A.D. 1850-1905
Historic Euroamerican Exploration   A.D. 1500s-1855
  Settlement/Ranching Yuman (Patayan/Mohave) A.D. 1855-1905
  Railroad/Las Vegas established   A.D. 1900-1930
  Hoover Dam/Gaming/WWII   A.D. 1931-1950

Paleo-Archaic Period (10,000-5,500 BC)

This period covers the terminal Pleistocene and first several millennia of the Holocene epochs. Today Great Basin archaeologists generally distinguish two artifact traditions within the Paleo-Archaic period: the Fluted Point (Paleo-Indian) and the Stemmed Point (Lake Mojave) traditions. The Fluted tradition's most characteristic artifact is the large, distinctive Clovis point.

Archaic Period (5,500 BC-AD 300)

The Archaic period is characterized by a hunting-and-gathering lifeway based on the exploitation of wild animals and plants. The Archaic tradition is characterized by a broad-spectrum adaptation to the animal and plant resources of the Holocene - that is, more or less modern - environment. It has been divided into Middle and Late subperiods. Characteristic artifacts of these Archaic periods include large projectile points that would have been hafted to darts that were propelled with atlatls. Grinding tools appear to be an important part of tool assemblages dating to the Middle period, and they are common in Late period assemblages. Although Middle Archaic period sites are not abundant in Southern Nevada, several sites located along Duck Creek in the Las Vegas Valley have components that appear to date to this time. Late Archaic period sites are more common than Middle Archaic sites in Southern Nevada, and several have been investigated within a few miles of the Las Vegas Wash.

Ceramic Period (AD 300-1850)

The Ceramic period sees the introduction of a mixed farming and hunting-gathering lifeways to Southern Nevada. In the past, this period was defined and subdivided into phases specifically referenced to the Virgin Anasazi (Puebloan) cultural traditions, however this did not take into account strong Southern Paiute and Patayan presences in Southern Nevada. Recent research shows that half of all pottery in this area is affiliated with the Patayan (Seymour 1997 and 2000). To avoid the problems associated with focusing on only one culture group or borrowing terms from other areas chronologies, the Ceramic period culture history has been divided into the Early, Middle and Late subperiods. The Early Ceramic subperiod can be characterized by the appearance of Gray Ware pottery. At the turn of the millennium and the Middle Ceramic subperiod, Great Basin Brown and Lower Colorado Buff Wares first make their appearance in the Las Vegas Area. By the Late Ceramic subperiod, only Great Basin Brown Ware is predominantly found. Radiocarbon dating and analysis of ceramics from sites along the Las Vegas Wash has shown occupation of the area during all three subperiods.

(Roberts, Heidi and Richard V. N. Ahlstrom 2000 Fragile Past: Archaeological Investigations in Clark County Wetlands Park, Nevada. HRA, Inc., Archaeological Report 00-03. Las Vegas.)

Yuman (Patayan/Mohave): Based upon pottery and the presence of an intaglio located near the Las Vegas Wash, it is inferred that the Wash represented an important travel corridor, habitation/camping locale, and resource procurement area for the Yumans. It has been suggested that these makers of Patayan pottery focused their settlement along Las Vegas and Duck Creek Washes, relying for subsistence on the mesquite trees that are to be found in that environment, but also farming there. Intaglios are large designs created on the ground by scraping away the desert pavement. They occur along the Lower Colorado and Gila rivers and are generally associated with Yuman groups. An intaglio has been recorded just south of the Las Vegas Wash, which is one of the few known intaglios in Southern Nevada.

(Excerpt from Greg Seymour, Archaeologist, Springs Preserve)

Las Vegas Wash Project Coordination Team • 100 City Parkway, Suite 700 • Las Vegas, NV 89106 • (702) 822-3300