Dennis Cassinelli: Prehistoric Mexican pottery found in Western Nevada
February 14, 2018
As a tour guide at the Nevada State Museum, I often take groups of students through the Native American exhibit titled "Under One Sky." As we go through the exhibits, we explain to the students the Prehistoric people in the Great Basin didn't make any pottery. One reason was the scarcity of suitable clay. Pottery water containers would've been fragile and heavy to carry for a hunting and gathering culture, constantly moving from one place to another in search of game and edible vegetation.
The Great Basin Indians developed water jugs made from tightly woven baskets lined with waterproof pitch that had straps to carry them easily when traveling through the mountains and deserts. The jugs were cleverly made to be set down without spilling the contents. We have several of these in the "Under One Sky" exhibit.
Even though no clay artifacts were made in Northern Nevada, several ceramic artifacts have been found here that originated in the Central Highlands of Mexico. Donald Tuohy, former Nevada State Museum curator of anthropology, wrote several articles in 1996 that described clay potsherds and figurines that were found at various places in Nevada. I'm showing just a few examples, but several others have been found in Northern Nevada.
Figure 1 is described as an appliqué potsherd found 200 yards from the west shore of Pyramid Lake. It shows a head with a feathered serpent helmet in Teotithuacan IV style dated at A.D. 700. It stands 2-1/4 inches high, and it likely came from Oaxaca, Mexico.
Figure 2 is a side view of a small clay figurine found on the east shore of Washoe Lake. It's hollow with a small hole in the back. The portion remaining stands 2-1/2 inches high and all the edges have been damaged. It's described as the leg of a tripod vessel dated from 900 to 1500 A.D. It's from Mexico's Toltec culture.
Figure 3 is a clay head found near the mouth of Walker Lake on the Paiute Indian Reservation. It dates from 300 B.C. to 300 A.D. The portion remaining stands 2-1/4 inches high. It was described as badly damaged but authentic and came from the central Mexican Highlands.
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Now that we have positively identified Mesoamerican pottery and clay artifacts from Mexico finding their way into Northern Nevada lake shores, how can we explain this phenomenon?
It seems the most logical explanation for the appearance of these clay/ceramic artifacts in Northern Nevada is a trade network between the Great Basin Indians and the people in Mesoamerica. It's not surprising the hunter-gatherer people of prehistoric Nevada may have wanted to trade for some of the clay trinkets and effigies brought here by traders from Mexico.
Conversely, traders from the Great Basin may have visited Mexico at times to bring goods to trade such as Nevada's high quality obsidian, turquoise and opals in trade for pottery items. In my book, "Uncovering Archaeology," I describe many artifacts and ruins in Mexico based on trips I made there several years ago.
We do know many prehistoric trade networks did exist. Here in Nevada, I've found marine shell beads that could have come only from the Pacific Ocean. Someone had to bring them here, or someone from here had to go to get them from California or Oregon. Ancient trade events did occur and every culture had something that another culture wanted.
This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis' books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.