Despite its harsh climate, characterized by hot days, freezing nights, and the least rainfall in the country, the Nevada desert was home to people long before the settlement of Las Vegas. When Europeans began exploring and later settling in North America, it was already home to many people, including specific groups that made their homes in the desert. Much of what we think we know about the early years of America comes from old movies and cheesy TV shows, but the real history of these people is rich and complicated.
Our Las Vegas ATV tour adventure passes by many petroglyphs and other type cave drawing from the native Indians that once roamed the area. We do not take visitor to those sites anymore due to the ancient drawing slowly getting destroyed. Here’s a look at some of the people who called the desert home, and some who still do.
Perhaps the people most associated with the desert thanks to their name, the Mohave people were once the largest group concentrated in the southwest. One of the most defining characteristics of the Mohave was the tattoos they often wore, done with blue ink and usually seen in a series on lines on the chin or around the mouth. These tattoos are believed to have had significance in gaining access to the afterlife, and the tattooing itself was done by a specialized member of the society in a ceremonial event.
Primarily a nomadic people, the Chemehuevi traditionally lived in small groups because of the difficulty finding resources in the desert. To make food last in the harshest of climates, the Chemehuevi had a system of storing dried or cooked food in ceramic jars, then burying or storing them for future use.
The ancestral homeland of the Timbisha people is the area now known as Death Valley. Obviously the climate that settlers thought of as deadly provided more than enough for the Timbisha people to survive. The once plentiful population of desert bighorn sheep and mesquite trees provided food, while homes constructed from lightweight brush provided shelter from the sun while allowing wind to pass through. When Death Valley became a national monument, the Timbisha people went unconsidered, and several attempts were made to remove them from their ancestral lands before the passing of the Timbisha Homeland Act in the year 2000.
Keeping mostly to their family groups, the Goshute people of western Utah and eastern Nevada
gathered into larger groups for cooperative efforts in harvesting. In the harsh desert winter, the Goshutes migrated to Deep Creek Valley to shelter in dug out houses that provided more warmth.
Making their home in the Great Basin near Lake Tahoe, the Washoe people didn’t have sustained contact with non-native people until the California gold rush in 1848. This influx of settlers and migrants had a disastrous effect on their traditional lands, and created a culture clash that’s hard to imagine in the age of technology. Before this contact was made, the Washoe knowledge of seasonal cycles made them experts in fishing and plant cultivation.
Made up of three very closely related groups of people (the Northern Paiute, Owens Valley Paiute, and Southern Paiute), there are numerous smaller bands and groups that fall under the Paiute umbrella. Surviving as hunter gatherers, desert seeds like pine nuts were an important food source, along with fishing and duck hunting.
While the way people live in the desert has been drastically changed, it’s impressive that so many groups of people were able to thrive for centuries in one of the world’s most extreme climates. Next time you experience a hot desert afternoon, maybe you’ll take a moment to think about the desert’s original inhabitants.