80 Years After This Nevada Lake Dried Up, Its 14,000-Year-Old Relics Solved An Ancient Mystery

In western Nevada lies the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation. Home to the Paiute Tribe since time immemorial, within the Reservation’s confines is Winnemucca Lake. It’s called a “lake,” but Winnemucca has been dry for some time. And it’s here, on this very site, that geologist Larry Benson became bewitched by several boulders that, as it turns out, provided a stunning link to the past.

As Winnemucca Lake is now uncovered by water, the boulders which so entranced Benson were far from a secret. Indeed, a husband and wife team of Robert E. and Frances Connick were the first to record the site back in 1992. According to the Connicks, this was an unusual find, and something that could be considered of significant antiquity. But years lapsed before the true secrets of Winnemucca were established.

The Winnemucca Lake basin hasn’t always been dry. Just a hundred or so years ago there was still water here, even if this is one of the driest regions of the United States. So, what changed? Well, the Bureau of Reclamation decided to build a dam. And as a result, Winnemucca became arid and uninhabitable by 1938.

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The Federal agency’s decision to block up the Truckee River, which fed Winnemucca and still feeds Pyramid Lake to the west, had far-reaching consequences. You see, this is not an area of the country blessed with water: Nevada has the lowest average amount of rainfall in the entire United States at just 10 inches annually. So, while the nearby Carson River Valley became prosperous farmland, the area around Winnemucca suffered.

For local wildlife, the decision to dam up the Truckee was catastrophic. “When the Truckee River was abruptly diverted during the dam’s inaugural celebration, thousands of cutthroat trout were left flopping in the mud. Cheering spectators, rolling up pantaloons and pant legs, wallowed in the slime and clubbed the fish to death,” reported the Reno Gazette-Journal at the time.

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It was equally devastating for people here. The Paiute Tribe relied on Pyramid and Winnemucca Lakes – both situated within the confines of the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation – as a source of food and economic support. To this day Pyramid Lake, which is still resplendent with water, remains the most valuable resource available to the Paiute.

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Traditionally, the Paiute peoples of this part of Nevada are named after the food which formed the predominant part of their diet. And their diet was, of course, dictated by their ecosystem. Living in small bands situated on the lake, or the nearby river or marsh, the bounty offered up by the water was integral to their lives.

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Yet fish stocks at Pyramid Lake were decimated by the damming of the Truckee River. However, come the 1990s, the lake was being restocked with fish by Paul Wagner, who led a restoration programme. “One generation took something wonderful and turned it into nothing. We’ve turned it back into something. If we’re careful–and lucky–maybe one day it’ll grow back into something wonderful again,” said Wagner.

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But Pyramid Lake, and nearby Winnemucca, are so much more to the people of this place. Pyramid Lake was not always thus titled, and indeed, is still known by its much older name by the Paiute tribe. They call it “Tupepeaha,” and it sits at the heart of what is sacred land to this indigenous people.

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In the local tongue, Tupepeaha means ‘Stone Mother’, and forms a core theory of their origin myth. You see, the Paiute worship her, and it is the Stone Mother’s tears that are said to be the source of the saltwater in the lake. Joe Ely, an ex-chairman of the tribe, sums it up best. The Stone Mother and the original story “set our identity, and forever fix the components that make up our way of life,” he said.

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But then the explorers came and everything changed. In 1844 Captain John C. Frémont arrived at the home of the Paiute Tribe and temporarily settled at the water’s edge. “We’ve encamped on the shore, opposite a very remarkable rock in the lake, which had attracted our attention for many miles. This striking feature suggested a name for the lake, and I called it Pyramid Lake,” the Captain wrote in his journal.

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Furthermore, the explorers branded a nearby alkali lake, “Mud Lake.” But come 1862, a flood replenished this arid basin with water, and it was renamed Winnemucca Lake. For you see, it took its title after a Paiute chief of the same name, and soon became a major fishing spot for cutthroat trout.

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By the 1880s a fishing camp had been established on the shores of Winnemucca Lake, supplying a cannery in the local town of Wadsworth. A man named Adobe Charlie set up a nearby convenience store and operated a handful of fishing vessels on the lake. So these were relatively prosperous times for Winnemucca.

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Then came the decision of the Federal Bureau of Reclamation to construct a dam. By 1907 the Derby Dam had been successfully completed, blocking the flow of the Truckee River into Winnemucca Lake. In the Prohibition days of the 1920s, the lake’s water levels had dropped dangerously low. And by 1939 the basin was desert once again.

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So Tupepeaha – the Paiute’s Stone Mother – had already had its name changed to Pyramid Lake. Now, nearly a century later, a dam had dried up nearby Winnemucca Lake. So you see, the tribe’s lives had been irreparably changed in just a few decades. Yet there were additional consequences to this chain of events, one of which was the revelation of a set of boulders that had previously been covered by Winnemucca’s waters.

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Yet what was particularly compelling about these rocks on the Winnemucca Lake site was the presence of petroglyphs, or rock carvings. And it was the Connicks, surveying the site in 1992 for the University of California, that recognized that these particular carvings were unique.

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But what exactly had the Connicks found? Well, these were meter-scale carvings cut deeply into the rock. Situated close together, the carvings were also identified by the Connicks as being early age. And actually, they were not cut into boulders, but tufa mounds that had partially collapsed.

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Yes, the boulders in question at Winnemucca Lake weren’t as they’d seemed. “Tufa mounds are created by the precipitation of dissolved minerals, primarily calcium carbonate, from thermal spring water,” so says a Government of Canada National Parks website. Such tufa mounds are not uncommon around the world, especially in an area known as the Lahontan Basin.

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In fact, the Lahontan Basin was once a great lake. But today it forms a major part of what is known as the Great Basin region of the western United States, encompassing parts of Nevada and California. And Pyramid Lake and Winnemucca Lake are two of three sub basins that comprise the Lahontan Basin’s western edge.

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Anyway, it wasn’t long before other experts descended on the site to see what the Connicks had unearthed on the tufa mounds of Winnemucca Lake. And one of these was University of Colorado geologist Larry Benson. Now, Benson’s research has focused on climate change records provided by lakes in the western United States, as well as the impact of climate change on Native Americans.

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You see, Benson had been intrigued by Native American life ever since he enjoyed looking for arrowheads as a boy in Missouri. Upon seeing the Winnemucca boulders, and their array of petroglyphs, the scientist was left stunned. But what exactly was it about these carvings that prompted Benson to describe them as “incredibly beautiful”?

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Rudimentary by today’s standards they may be, but the carvings at Winnemucca Lake are still impressive. “Some look like multiple connected sets of diamonds, and some look like trees, or veins in a leaf. There are few petroglyphs in the American Southwest that are as deeply carved as these, and few that have the same sense of size,” said Benson.

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In terms of size and shape, petroglyphs like these at Winnemucca Lake have been seen before. Indeed, petroglyphs once believed to be the oldest in North America bear resemblance to these particular forms of rock art. Those examples are at a site near Long Lake in Oregon. And one of the petroglyphs was buried by the ash from a volcanic explosion which was estimated to have taken place 6,700 years ago.

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But it wasn’t just the appearance of the petroglyphs that excited Benson. Winnemucca had clearly not always been dry, as recent history had attested to. Yet much further back in time there were dramatic rises and falls in its water levels. Knowing this, Benson had a hunch. And if that hunch was proven correct, then it was about to have a profound impact on what was known about human settlement in this region.

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However, Benson needed hard data. To get it, a team from the University of Colorado, situated in Boulder, collected a number of samples from the area, including carbonate crust and even algal formations found in shallow water. The objective was clear: to establish when humans could have had access to these rocks to complete the carvings.

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So Benson and the team performed a dating analysis using strontium isotopes. These findings, alongside data collected from within Pyramid Lake, would enable Benson to establish when water levels had risen and fallen over the course of millennia. But to be precise, one additional source of data needed to be utilized: analyzing the grooves in the petroglyphs themselves.

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It was here that Benson and the team hit a stumbling block. You see, they needed the permission of the Paiute Tribe, whose sacred land these petroglyphs were located upon, to take scrapings from the carvings. Understandably, the Paiute were reluctant because so much of their world had already been turned upside down.

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Eventually, though, the Paiute relented. And furthermore, a compromise was reached: Benson and his team were granted permission to gather samples, but only non-intrusively. As a result, they used radiocarbon dating instead. Overall, it now meant that the team had utilized a number of dating methods.

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In looking for broad correlations between the analytical processes, dates could now be estimated with some degree of accuracy. Yes, the boulders on Winnemucca Lake had been above the water level at two distinct periods. And realistically, it was only within these two periods that the petroglyphs could have been carved.

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The team submitted a research paper to the Journal of Archaeological Science in 2013. And that paper, delivered on behalf of the U.S. Geological Survey, was co-authored by Benson and his colleague John Southon, as well as others. It was a collaborative effort, and the findings were revelatory.

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“The lake in the Winnemucca Lake subbasin fell beneath its spill point between 14,800 and 13,000 years ago, and also between 11,300 and 10,500 years ago (or between 11,500 and 11,100 years ago), exposing the base of the collapsed tufa mound to petroglyph carving,” the paper said.

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These findings established the Winnemucca Lake petroglyphs as the earliest known in the Americas. Even allowing for the latest time estimate of 10,500 years, that would still be true. And an earlier date could also be possible. “This does not rule out the possibility that petroglyph carving occurred between 14,800 and 13,000 years ago when Pyramid Lake was relatively shallow and Winnemucca Lake had desiccated,” Benson’s paper adds.

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In layman’s terms, these petroglyphs were of staggering importance. The cultural, historical and sociological value of this find could not be underestimated. And suddenly there was evidence of cultural activity attributable to some of the earliest peoples known to have inhabited the Americas. But even today there is no common consensus to when those peoples actually arrived.

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For most of modern U.S. history, it’s been believed that the first American peoples arrived over the Beringia landmass that connected Siberia and Alaska during the most recent ice age. That dated arrivals to around 13,000 years ago. Yet more recent finds in modern-day Chile have blown open what was a previously closed debate. Whatever the truth, the Winnemucca Lake petroglyphs could be attributed to Paleo-Indians from around this era.

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Hardly any examples of artwork from these early peoples have been discovered. Indeed, hardly any artefacts at all remain from this period of human settlement in North America. But the sophisticated nature of the artwork only added to the mystery. “To get something this complex this early is very, very rare,” admitted archaeologist Dennis Jenkins, from the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon.

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And so the groundbreaking discovery about the petroglyphs had finally been made. Or at least confirmed, as Benson’s hunch was proven correct. “I think it’s really amazing that people that far back were creating such wonderful things,” Benson says. But that is far from the end of the mystery, as the geologist asserts, “We have no idea what they mean.”

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Humans are always seeking answers. Yet the raw beauty of the petroglyphs can still be enjoyed even if little is known about who made the carvings, or why they did it. “I think they are absolutely beautiful symbols,” adds Benson. And anyone who sees the depictions would surely agree.

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Furthermore, if the petroglyphs at Winnemucca Lake prove to be at the younger end of Benson’s timeframe, then that would tie in with another groundbreaking discovery. This one was made in the mid-20th century in a location to the east of Reno. But this time it was not a piece of art that was found, but the mummified remains of one of the people who had once dwelled in this region.

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Spirit Cave Man – as the mummy came to be known – was a significant find. You see, his clothes, hair and skeleton have been identified to be approximately 10,600 years old. And his remains were wrapped in a shroud made of marsh plant, and he was resplendent in moccasins and a fur robe. It was another notable discovery on a par with that of the Winnemucca Lake petroglyphs.

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Of course, archaeological discoveries of this kind are rare. Yet it is moments like these that help maintain such a healthy interest in the past. Even before Benson realized the greater significance of the petroglyphs, he recalled how these “incredibly beautiful” pieces of art brought him under their spell. And what’s more, it raises the question: what else lies below the earth, and the lakes, of the inland United States and beyond?

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