Thomas Alexander
Utah, The Right Place

In the cool, damp climate of the late Pleisto-cene epoch, spruce-fir forests flourished in Utah as low as 5,000 feet above sea level. This cool habitat became the home of the first peoples of Utah, the Paleo-Indians who walked the lands of the Beehive State as early as 11,000 B.C. From about 16,000 B.C. To about 6,000 B.C., as Utah emerged from the last ice age, summer temperatures began to rise significantly. Baked by increasing heat and stressed by decreasing precipitation, the spruce-fir forests began to recede to higher altitudes, and heat-and drought-tolerant pinion-juniper and sage-brush-bunchgrass habitats replaced them.

The Paleo-Indians remained in Utah until about 6,500 B.C., and their successors, the Great Basin and Plateau Archaic peoples, lived in Utah until about the time of Christ. Both groups inhabited caves and brush and wood shelters, subsisting either through nomadic or sedentary hunter-gatherer lifestyles.

Instead of moving from nomadic to settled life in a natural progression as their culture changed, these people chose different lifestyles within their technological capability, pressures of population, environmental change, and cultural traits. Those who chose to live within productive and diverse ecosystems, such as along the shores of the lakes, gathered in large, relatively fixed locations. By contrast, people who lived in less fruitful localities with scarce resources, such as the sagebrush flats, migrated from one food supply or place of shelter to another as the cycles of plant and animal life made such relocations expedient.

Many archaeologists believe that the damp, biologically diverse marshes along the shores of lakes and slow streams supplied the richest sources of food and shelter for ancient peoples who chose sedentary lifestyles. People living near marshes found plentiful supplies of plants such as cattails, roots, and berries, and animals such as birds, rabbits, and fish to eat. Since most of the lakes in Utah with the largest marsh areas lie near the places where most people live today, it takes only a moment’s reflection to conclude that the largest numbers of Paleo-Indian and Archaic Utahns probably preferred to live there also.

Many of the sedentary people lived at least temporarily in cave or rock shelters near freshwater springs on the periphery of the Great Salt Lake. In one site near Willard, these ancient peoples constructed adobe storage shelters, and we assume they may have grown corn since archaeologists have found charred corncobs at the site. In addition to harvesting the products of the nearby marshes, these earliest peoples hunted lowland horned animals such as antelope and deer.

Like the periphery of the Great Salt Lake, the shores of other Great Basin lakes provided ideal locations for many of these people. Utah Lake offered favored sites where Paleo-Indians harvested marsh flora and fauna and hunted bison and large waterfowl such as Canadian geese. Sevier Lake, which in late Pleistocene and early Holocene times held a great deal more water than at present, hosted some of these ancient Utahns as well.

As the weather warmed during early Holocene times, these lakes receded. Population pressures near the water’s edge tended to increase, and many of these people began to hunt upland game animals such as mountain sheep and the fast-disappearing mega-mammals, including the Pleistocene mammoth and camel. Some people, perhaps preferring to avoid contention with others for space and food near the lakes, lived as nomads, moving from place to place while gathering seasonal edibles.

Thus, peoples with similar cultural traits chose different habitats and different foods. In fact, archaeologists have found identical types of pottery, projectile points, basketry, and grinding equipment at diverse sites, suggesting similar technological and cultural attainment.

Moreover, the Paleo-Indian culture spread throughout the region. Paleo-Indian traders carried goods between Utah and New Mexico, evidenced by the use of obsidian from Utah sites by peoples from the south to make the famous Clovis spear points.