Late Prehistoric Period

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

Based on:
Simms, Steven R. 2008/2016 Ancient Peoples of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau (with original artwork by Eric Carlson and Noel Carmack). Routledge, New York.

It is tempting know the last 1,000 years of Native American history by simply extending backwards from Utah’s historically known peoples, the Shoshone, Ute, Southern Paiute, and the Navajo. All Utah’s Native Americans are descended from those of the Archaic, and in a complex way, from the Ancestral Puebloan farming groups known as Fremont and Anasazi. But the story is not a simple sequence of neatly bounded cultures and peoples one replacing another. The Late Prehistoric period spanned more than 33 human generations, and experienced significant upheaval and change long before the arrival of the Spanish and other Euro-Americans.

By the beginning of the Late Prehistoric Millennium, around A.D. 1000 the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) of southern Utah and the Fremont Puebloan north of the Colorado River were approaching their peak populations. The Fremont were likely several peoples, languages, and heritages. On the Colorado Plateau, the Fremont grew out of the Four Corners Basketmaker II peoples speaking a Kiowa-Tanoan language now found in the upper Rio Grande tribes of New Mexico. In contrast, the eastern Great Basin Fremont of western Utah likely derived from Basketmaker II peoples speaking a Uto-Aztecan language; a grouping that includes Hopi, but also includes the “Numic” languages of the Shoshone, Southern Paiute, and Ute. 

After several centuries of successful farming and growing populations during the Medieval Climatic Anomaly (A.D. 900 – 1300), climate transitioned into a long period called the Little Ice Age making farming more difficult in Utah. Some Fremont hung on to farming into the 16th century – at spotty locations in the Uinta Basin, on the Tavaputs Plateau, near Capitol Reef, and in northwest Colorado. As most Fremont gave up farming, they either migrated out of the region or dispersed to a hunting and gathering lifestyle (Figure 1) that had long been one element of the Fremont lifeway. These out migrations were not a singular event or people. Some of the Colorado Plateau Fremont migrated north to Wyoming and became the Kiowa originating as a historically known tribe near Yellowstone, and eventually ending up in the southern Plains. Still other Fremont, perhaps the western, Uto-Aztecan Fremont migrated south to join related language groups on the Hopi Mesas of Arizona. The Anasazi Puebloans of southeastern Utah also migrated south.

Figure 1 (Above): Hunting is not restricted to men, and this especially applies to small game hunting. Women in groups hunted small mammals where their burrows were concentrated using mass techniques such as diverting a creek into a field of burrows to flush animals out. They participated in rabbit drives with men where hundreds of rabbits were driven into nets and clubbed. Women could also run trap lines, a type of hunting that could be embedded in other activities from child care, to basketry, to root and seed gathering. Here a women uses large scissors snares to take squirrels and illustrates how the animal is attracted to the bait, and how the snare seizes the animal once it is tripped. Note her fiber clothing, by far the most common fabric in the history of humanity. Artwork by Eric Carlson.

During these times of change between A.D. 1300 – 1600 the ancestors of the Navajo and Apache of the Southwest were also on the move. In the area around Promontory in northern Utah, a group of Apachean speakers (an Athabaskan language family originating in Canada that also includes Navajo) migrated from the north and stopped for a period on their journey that eventually took them to New Mexico. This is clearly a time where the decline in farming presented new opportunities to the foragers who had always lived in the spaces among the farmers.

Modern Utahns know that the historic tribes include the Shoshoni (Goshute is a dialect of Shoshoni), Ute, and Southern Paiute. These languages are collectively called Numic languages, and they are part of the very large Uto-Aztecan language family that stretches all the way to central Mexico. The relationships between the Numic groups and the Fremont and Anasazi are murky, but it appears the Numic peoples were present during at least a portion of Fremont times. As early as A.D. 1000, Numic foragers in eastern and southern Nevada were aware of the Fremont and Anasazi farmers. They learned and borrowed pottery from the Ancestral Puebloan of southern Nevada and created their own versions long before the Fremont began to leave. The distinctions between them can be seen in contrasting rock art styles, but rock art is difficult to date. Oddly, despite their differences, the Fremont farmers, and the foragers of eastern Nevada shared a common prior heritage strikingly apparent in the basketry. Yet with all the upheaval and migration the basketry changed too and the basketry we know of the Numic speaking groups eventually became very different from the Fremont basketry before it. At the same time, new arrow points were spreading across dozens of language groups and peoples across the West from Mexico to Canada. But it is difficult to identify a people or a language from only an arrowhead. 

Archaeologists traditionally refer to these changes as the “Numic Spread”, the immigration of new peoples with the decline of farming, and a replacement of the older cultures whether they be Archaic foragers or Fremont farmers. This is too simple, and greater attention is now paid to the upheaval of this time, leading to circumstances fostering immigration, new ethnogenesis, substantial language change, and new connections; culture created anew out of the interaction of cultural diversity. One thing becoming increasingly clear is that a rapid and recent “Numic Spread” in a linear progression does not do justice to the history of the Utah tribes; their history is deeper and more complex than such a simple story (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The Orbit Inn site 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.

The end of farming and the Fremont by perhaps A.D. 1500 did not mark an uneventful cruise toward the historic period. It would be nearly three centuries before the Dominguez-Escalante expedition were the first Europeans to make a circuit of Utah in A.D. 1776. During this period, the archaeology suggests a broad decrease in population across the region lasting nearly two centuries and only beginning to rebound well into the 18th century.

There is an unfolding awareness of the enormous impact of European disease on Native American populations after the Columbian land fall: Spanish entry in the southeastern U.S. and Mexico in the early A.D. 1500s and the Southwest by the mid-1500s. It is well documented that some portions of North America experienced severe consequences from diseases the indigenous peoples had never encountered: smallpox, measles, influenza, and scarlet fever to name a few. Once introduced by Europeans, the diseases spread native to native leapfrogging ahead and making the continent “widowed land by the time of widespread Euro American settlement.” The diseases did not spread as readily in the American Desert West because of the dry climate and hunter-gatherer populations. But there were pockets where people concentrated: the Wasatch Front, the Sevier Valley, the Beaver River/Sevier River/Sevier Lake marshes are some. Did native travelers from the Pacific coast, or perhaps the Southwest inadvertently bring disease over two centuries before any white man would see Utah? Several pieces of this puzzle fit, but we do not know for sure.

The horse may have been making its way into Utah as early as the mid A.D. 1600s when the Comanche and Ute from the north were raiding New Mexico for horses. The Mexican and native slave trade was being felt, and metal tools such as knives were signs of more change ahead. After the Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico in A.D. 1680, the northward flow of horses increased and by the A.D. 1700s horses were a part of life for some people in Utah. The Dominguez-Escalante expedition encountered native peoples who were aware of horses, such as the Ute of Utah Lake. They did not have them, but they knew that the Shoshone to the north did.  It would be nearly 50 years after the Dominguez-Escalante expedition before there was a continuous presence of Euro-Americans in Utah with the trappers of the early 19th century. The indigenous peoples of Utah now found themselves on the edge of history.