Late prehistoric territorial expansion and maintenance in the south-central Sierra Nevada, California

Christopher Thomas Morgan
Dept. of Anthropology, University of California, Davis
July, 2006


While logistically organized and sedentary hunter-gatherers have been characterized as more efficient resource exploiters with adaptive advantages over simpler, mobile foragers, the mobile Western Mono successfully migrated to the western slope of the south-central Sierra Nevada, California, outcompeting and displacing more sedentary groups some 600 years ago. They did so during a shift from benign, warm, and dry to marginal, cold, and wet environmental conditions. Assuming that settlement and subsistence behaviors are adaptive mechanisms that confer advantages (and disadvantages) to groups competing to occupy territory, this research focuses on reconstructing Western Mono settlement, transport, and storage behaviors in light of patchy montane resource distributions resulting from late Holocene climate change. This theoretical approach directs analysis towards reconstructing competitive hunter-gatherer subsistence behaviors during a period where when resources were particularly patchy with regard to time, space, and elevation.

Such behaviors were those that best averaged temporal and spatial variability in resource availability. For the Mono, these behaviors were seasonal residential mobility and acorn transport and caching. Residential mobility effectively averaged resource base variability by bringing consumers to resources during peak environmental productivity. Transport of acorn to winter hamlets and high elevations was important to this strategy, bringing resources to consumers in winter and reducing uncertainty when entering resource-poor environments in summer. Dispersed and expedient acorn caching offset the temporal variability of resource availability. Acorn caches are distributed in efficient and risk-reducing logistical foraging radii that effectively provisioned lowland winter settlements. Caches not only sustained winter populations, but also facilitated spring and summer moves by providing reliable food stores near highland spring and summer camps. Combined, Mono transport, mobility, and storage effectively averaged pronounced spatial and temporal variance in the environment's production of key resources during the late Holocene neoglacial, behaviors ultimately leading to their successful migration and territorial maintenance. These findings ultimately imply that when hunter-gatherers compete; to occupy territory, behaviors thought of as simple, such as residential mobility and expedient technology, can confer competitive advantages to their practitioners and that the success or failure of competing behaviors is intrinsically linked to the ecological contexts in which they occur.