Prehistoric Cultural Resources
Print Page


The remains of Indian encampments may still be found in the Las Vegas Field Office management area. Prehistoric kitchens, or roasting pits, are doughnut-shaped piles of fire-cracked rock and ashy soil. Roots of the agave plant were baked in these pits and research has shown that the pits were also used to cook cacti, desert tortoise and bighorn sheep. Designs engraved in the rock are called petroglyphs. The designs were cut through the darker stained surface, known as desert varnish, exposing the lighter rock underneath. Pictographs are painted designs usually found in sheltered locations such as rock overhangs or caves. There are many theories that explain the meaning of rock art. It is illegal to disturb these sites or collect artifacts. Each artifact found at a site tells an important story, allowing archaeologists to discover the activities that took place there. Native Americans value many of these sites as sacred places that should be respected. Even touching the rock art will wear it away and oils from your hands speed up the breakdown of the rock. Please help us preserve and protect these sites for future generations.

The earliest evidence of humans in the Las Vegas area has been found at Tule Springs and indicates humans were present approximately 12,000 years ago. Southern Nevada was moister then and shallow lakes filled several of the lower valleys. The water attracted animals and provided a lush environment to support early humans. These first people probably moved through the area as few sites are found dating to this time period.

About 10,000 years ago, climatic conditions became drier and people moved seasonally in search of food and water. Seeds were harvested wherever they ripened, mesquite beans were collected in the valleys and piñon nuts were gathered in the mountains. Parts of other plants were used to make such items as clothing, dart and arrow shafts, baskets, cordage and nets. People lived in temporary camps near springs and other water sources and some of these sites may show thousands of years of use. Caves and other natural shelters were used for protection from the elements. Due to the dry Nevada environment, these sites may preserve organic remains such as basketry and fur blankets for more than 10,000 years. Gypsum Cave shows evidence of over five thousand years of human occupation as well as earlier use by now extinct animals like the giant ground sloth.

As early as A.D. 100, prehistoric people who became known as the Virgin Anasazi settled along the Muddy and Virgin River valleys. These people were more sedentary than their neighbors living in the west and cultivated corn, squash and beans. They built permanent houses and storage structures of stone and adobe. Although the archaeological evidence shows these people came to depend increasingly on agriculture, they still relied somewhat on wild foods. They acquired resources from as far west as the Spring Mountains although it is not clear whether they gathered the resources themselves or traded for these goods with the more mobile people living there.

By A.D. 1150, the Virgin Anasazi began to abandon their settlements and the Patayan or Colorado River peoples (ancestors of the Mohave) began to move into the area. When the first Euro-Americans entered southern Nevada, they discovered people they called the Paiutes living here. The Spanish established the earliest routes through the region and the main route became known as the Old Spanish Trail. The trail stretched 1,200 miles from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to southern California. Travelers along the trail transported trade goods, herded livestock and also preyed on the Paiutes, capturing women and children to sell as slaves.

Prehistoric sites in the Las Vegas Field Office management area include: archeological and paleoentological resources at Tule Springs, archeological complex at Willow Springs in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and rock art in Keyhole Canyon in the Eldorado Mountains.

Last updated: 06-24-2009