Great Salt Lake Archaeology & Cultural Heritage

Steven R. Simms
Professor of Anthropology
Utah State University
Logan, Utah

A smoky haze rises among five domed huts constructed by placing mats of cattail and bulrush over willow frames. There are many more people here than usual, and perhaps four dozen men, women and children temporarily increase the size of the settlement. At least a dozen people shuffle across a patio sheltered by a thatched ramada, swaying gently in rhythm and chanting softly. Inside a nearby reed-covered house, a woman hovers over another woman who is reclined motionless on a woven mat. She bobs a sucking tube near her mouth, pushing it toward her patient and then back toward her lips. Her head, shoulders, hips and knees synchronize a mime of spirits moving from the body of the ill woman. This is a curing, and this shaman from another valley was summoned because she is known to be the best.

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A curing ceremony (depicted above) using a sucking tube is hosted inside a tule mat home in the Great Salt Lake wetlands of northern Utah. Female shamans were known in the Great Basin, but were apparently not as common as male curers. Shamans could be specialists or generalists, and if their work did not go well, they could be seen as sorcerers. Their skills were thus a blend of social and spiritual power, and knowledge of illness and curing. This shaman holds a rattle while she bobs forward and back using the sucking tube to draw illness out of the patient. She combines this with a poultice using medicinal herbs ground into a paste using small mortars and pestles. She is dressed in fiber clothing, by far the most common fabric in prehistory. Textiles were the technological foundation of ancient foraging societies. Artwork by Noel Carmack.


The year is A.D. 1304, and the tiny village sits along a mildly saline and murky stream that meanders through a maze of ponds and sloughs in a convoluted effort to reach the open waters of the Great Salt Lake. A chilly October evening is deceptively darkened by an approaching storm. Musty smells of the marsh hover in the heavy, still air. In a living space burned into a clearing among the dense saltgrass and bulrushes, aromas of human, dog, and fermented fish mingle with the strong scents of burning driftwood.

This shaman is a woman. Both women and men could become shamans. Status and role are plastic and allocated by experience, ability, and charisma. If the shaman fails tonight, her reputation may be harmed, at least within this camp group of families. There are kin relations among most of the people here, some by blood and some by marriage. The kinship extends broadly outward, geographically linking villages, camps, valleys, and even regions with a set of memorized calculations. Should this curing be successful or go poorly, the word will be out, but the status and abilities of this famous woman shaman will be gauged according to those kinship calculations. That is how it worked.

The patient is a middle-aged woman, perhaps 35 years old, and the most respected basket maker in the valley. Her family believes that a foreign matter, a force of some sort, has intruded upon her body and her being. Mind, body, soul, spirit, and all of the things of the earth; they are the same thing. Animation and intent can arise from all things including animals, plants, and rocks. They can be found in weather phenomena like dust devils, and especially in topographic features such as lakes, rock outcrops, springs, prominences, and even parts of canyons. There can be no distinction of church and state because these things do not exist. There is no difference between the sacred and the secular. All things are entwined not only in people’s minds, but in the unfolding of everyday events of people, animals, plants, and even weather.

The shaman uses a sucking tube as part of the ceremony and to aid the healing. Tubes like this are used by indigenous curers in many societies around the world throughout history. This one is made of exotic stone from far beyond Utah, and has been handed down among shamans living near the Great Salt Lake. Not all curing can be done this way, and shamans often specialize in the kinds of maladies they treat and in the methods of treatment they use.

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This sucking tube (above) was found many years ago at a Fremont site west of Ogden, Utah. Because it is part of an anonymous private collection, not much is known other than what we can glean from the object itself. Sucking tubes are used in curing ceremonies in many societies around the world. This one is made of a steatite reputed to originate near Spokane, Washington. The long distance movement of raw material used in such a powerful object is not unusual. Photo by Laura Patterson and courtesy of Mark Stuart.

The curing ceremony brings together two camp groups. Camp groups are associations of people bound by the daily demands of life, and reflecting a variety of social networks. Camp groups can be amalgamations of people with contrasting life histories. The membership in camp groups can be fluid and is not strictly synonymous with boundaries of family, band, or tribe.

In the group assembled tonight for the curing, there are five or more extended families represented, two bands marking two extended lineages, at least four food-named groups, and there are several people who speak more than one language. One way people keep track of who is who in a camp group is to refer to a “tebiwa” (in Shoshone), which means a living area or homeland. These are sometimes labeled according to distinctive features, and have sometimes been called “food-named groups.” They are common in the Great Basin, but are also found among foraging societies elsewhere, such as in Australia. The Cattail-eaters, the Pine-nut eaters, and the Ground-hog eaters are examples of food-named groups. Even if life takes a person across many valleys, across other food-named groups, across kin and band lines, and even across language boundaries, people know where they are from.

Men and woman recognized as leaders among several different lineages are here tonight. Politics are founded upon kinship ties, and power, like status and role, is plastic and achieved. This means that the decisions of everyday life, such as those involved in food-getting, the collection of raw materials, whether to move or stay, and whether to break into smaller groups, are distinct from the larger networks that might be called political organization. The larger the group and the more settled the people, the stronger the influence of political organization on their lives.

If this curing goes well, the way is paved for marriages, greater alliance between the camp groups, lineages and bands, and even perhaps the sharing of risk by pooling valuable resources or sharing stored food. Marriages are often arranged or completed at such gatherings because individuals must marry outside of the lineage and preferably across band lines. In a place of few people, living in shifting groups, opportunities for marriage are intermittent, and must be exploited when an event such as this curing brings people together. For these people, alliances are paramount for sharing information about where to find the best food, and where other groups are camped, and for ensuring that networks of reciprocity provide support to those in need.

If the curing does not go well by tomorrow or the next day, distrust, conflict, and separation could arise. Scores may have to be settled in the future. This could pose difficult choices because in a dispute, an individual’s decision to align with one part of the family may strain ties with another. Cooperation and conflict are not distinct states of being, but are entwined representations of a social ecosystem.

The past few generations brought change. Stories the elders tell to the young speak of a past, a spirit time when people lived by farming, and the stories suggest that these ancient farmers may have been a different people. The stories imply both connection and distance. They describe people moving away and others moving in. The 14th century was a time of upheaval across what is now the western United States. Warfare in California and mass migrations in the Southwest jostled the continent’s populations, and created new social networks. Immigrants were flung from once successful places and now encountered strife and overpopulation. Even though northern Utah and the rest of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau were far from the epicenters, ripples were felt.

The curing is just beginning as evening approaches and it may last all night. Six men approach across the salt grass meadow, each with a string of muskrats dangling from his waist. The trap lines of snares and deadfalls are checked daily and the struggling animals retrieved for meat and fur. Today it was muskrats. Another trap line set for meadow mice will be checked tomorrow. Several women set off that morning to catch fish for the event, and a pile of Utah sucker are now baking in rock lined earth ovens. Baskets of bulrush seed and piles of starchy cattail roots will provide the foundation for a vegetable stew laced with tidbits of meat and spiced with tiny seeds of peppergrass.

A group of the younger men are not here tonight. They are in the mountains hunting bighorn sheep and mule deer. It is fall and the animals are fat. Rutting season is about to begin and this presents opportunities to exploit the animals’ natural behavior. The people hunt in all seasons, but in the larger scheme of things, meat from large game comprises a small fraction of the diet. The short, sinew-back “self” bows and cane arrows have an effective range of about 20 meters, and hunting requires persistence, skill, and remarkable stamina. Encounters with the animals may be few and reasonable shots hard to come by. Or, they may simply miss. Large animals however, are always sought, and when a bighorn sheep is brought into camp, the moment of plenty is shared widely, signaling another process that knits people together through obligation.  

The people are the main predators in this landscape. They are not like wolves who take only the young, old and sick - people take what they need. The female sheep and deer are favored for their fat and hides unblemished by the fights common among males. If a pregnant female deer is taken, the fetus is a delicacy not wasted. Sometimes the people along the Wasatch Front could kill a bison. They are difficult and dangerous to hunt on foot, but if the opportunity arises, it will not be missed.

Winter is approaching and clothing is being made and repaired. Large animal hides are valuable for clothes, bags, wrappings and so much more. Hides are only one source of fabric and most people wear fiber clothing as does the shaman at the curing. Skirts and breechclouts are woven from grass and bark. Long dresses, leggings, and thick, warm shirts are made of sagebrush bark. Woven cattail and bulrush leaves and stems provide another substantial fabric. Rabbit skin robes are made of strips of fur individually wrapped around strands of milkweed cordage and then sewn together make thick, pliable and very warm cloaks. These are the most coveted garments, and are passed down among generations.

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Far from being cast into a wilderness with only the food and tools on their backs, ancient people lived in a highly managed, “built” environment. This man (above) is retrieving a cache of 88 stone tool blanks. Each blank is flaked on both sides and prepared for final manufacture into knives, scrapers, arrowheads, drills, and gravers. This cache was found by amateur archaeologists in 1990 in the marshes northwest of Ogden, Utah. The obsidian is geochemically sourced to a location 60 miles away, northwest of Malad, Idaho. Such pits are common and enabled people to work without having to carry everything they need wherever they went. The flakes were carefully placed in a shallow hole along with a small, round quartzite pebble. Perhaps the pebble conveyed power to the cache or signified the man’s intention to return. We will never know the reason why the person who created this cache never retrieved it, but through their misfortune we can glimpse their life (Cornell et al. 1990:159).

For an important event such as this curing, people will find enough food to sustain everyone for awhile. When an area was used up, families relocate to exploit a different part of the wetlands. They might split into smaller groups, but when there is enough food they will congregate as long as it lasts. Some times of the year large groups will assemble; during the spring sucker spawn, the fall pine nut trip, the biannual pronghorn migration, and the famous rabbit drives of early winter.

Firewood is collected relentlessly and fires burn throughout the camp because heat and fuel are constant needs. Fire is part of life and not restricted to the hearth. In summer, burning keeps insects at bay, and is used to open up space for living. The people employ fire across the landscape to improve hunting, to improve seed bearing, and to maintain prime raw materials for basketmaking. The landscape is a mosaic of burned and less burned areas, and this works for the people because unlike us, they are not fully settled. This landscape is burning and burned, but it is not denuded or even dangerous. Fire is part of everyday life.

The people move within their ancient Utah wilderness with the nimbleness of long familiarity. They have lived in the wetlands, deserts and mountain valleys of northern Utah all their lives, as did their parents, grandparents, and all of the people before them in a past they can only imagine. In their language, there is no word for "wilderness." They mark no separation between humanity and nature, and cannot conceive of our juxtaposition of humanity versus nature. There is harmony and balance, but these are not static. The people are shaping their wilderness. They use and even exhaust the resources. The balance they achieve is not a final state, but rather an unsteady relationship between the impact of the people and the difficult realities that determine their choices. For the past 13,000 years the wilderness of the Ancient Desert West was a human wilderness.

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The Orbit Inn site (above) located at Brigham City, Utah on the edge of the Great Salt Lake wetlands is an example of life during the Promontory period. This camp was used repeatedly between A.D. 1425 and 1450 for taking Utah chub and other suckers during the spring spawn, and again in the late summer for hunting waterfowl during their molt. Seed resources and small mammals were also taken, especially muskrats. Each time the camp was occupied for perhaps a month. It was one of several points of anchor as people cycled among the wetlands during the year. Specialized task parties went to the mountains for resources ranging from toolstone to mule deer. A brown chert commonly used at the Orbit Inn came from a mountain pass about 12 miles to the east. Even though the Promontory economy was based on foraging in contrast to the preceding Fremont farmers, a tradition of pottery making continued. Despite the degree of continuity in heritage, the demise of farming fundamentally altered the notion of place and life itself.

Excerpt from: Ancient Peoples of the Great Basin and the Colorado Plateau, Steven R. Simms (2008)

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Why We Care

  • "This was by far the most exciting and effective wave excursion I ever made this side of the Rocky Mountains; and when at its close I was heaved ashore among the sunny grasses and flowers, I found myself a new creature indeed, and went bounding along the beach with blood all aglow, reinforced by the best salts of the mountains, and ready for any race."

    - John Muir describing a swim in Great Salt Lake

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