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David A. Fredrickson

This article originally appeared in Symposium: A New Look at some Old Sites, Papers from the Symposium Organized by Francis A. Riddell, Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for California Archaeology, March 23-26, 1983, San Diego, California. Coyote Press Archives of California Prehistory 6:75-81, 1986.

At the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, an area whose scant rainfall averages less than six inches annually, the Kern River, in the process of depositing its annual burden of sediment as if flowed westward from the Sierra, created a broad natural dam across the end of valley. This natural dam is the northern boundary of the Buena Vista Basin, a sagebrush desert which in its southwestern portion contained the now-drained Buena Vista Lake whose lowest elevation was about 268 feet above sea level. During particularly wet years, the waters of Buena Vista Lake would rise to a maximum of about 300 feet above sea level at which time it would join with the smaller Kern Lake to the east, to form a broad expanse covering about 100 square miles, and overflow to the northwest around the Elk Hills into the Tulare Basin.

Although the level of the lake was subject to considerable fluctuation, it is unlikely that it ever dried up completely during the prehistoric period. With respect to human habitation it has been said that:

The fluctuations of its margins were never great enough to cause the removal of people situated on the 300-foot line. It was able to support a more constant and vigorous flora: and animal life as a source of human food would never be forced away. In short, it was the most suitable habitat for permanent residence in the southern San Joaquin valley [Gifford and Schenck 1926:15].
Archaeological materials recovered from sites located at the margins of the lake suggest that human occupancy of the locality extended back into the past for thousands of years. Data obtained from two separate investigations, one conducted almost 50 years ago (Wedel 1941) and the other about 20 years ago (Fredrickson and Grossman 1977), allow the formulation of a tentative cultural chronology and of several research directions pertinent to the lake shore habitat.

Beginning December 20, 1933 and terminating March 31, 1934, extensive excavations were conducted at five sites on the southwestern edge of Buena Vista Lake. The work was organized and financed by the Civil Works Administration as a means of reducing unemployment during the Great Depression and the location was selected due to its mild winter climate and proximity to "abundant unemployed labor," for the most part oil-field workers from nearby industrial towns (Wedel 1941:1-2). Site selection, professional direction, and field supervision was the responsibility of the Smithsonian Institution, with excavation supervised by E.F. Walker of the Southwest Museum and Waldo R. Wedel, then a graduate student in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. During the excavation period of slightly more than three months, a work force totaling 187 men was employed, with as many as 160 working at any one time. A massive amount of information was obtained during this short period and an exemplary site report was produced by Wedel (1941).

The Smithsonian workers excavated two shell middens on the southwestern shore line of the lake and two relatively large cemeteries located in the low hills above the shore; an additional small area in the hills, perhaps utilized for mourning ceremonies, was also excavated. Additional tests were made at 28 other locations in the hills in search of burial areas. Although the work is best known for its deeper component which yielded handstones, milling slabs, and at one site, extended burials, i.e., materials related to southern California's early milling stone complex, two phases of a pre-European late occupation were identified in the upper component. Based on assumed rates of midden accumulation, the upper component was tentatively placed between A.D. 1400 and 1700 (Wedel 1941:133 ff.).

Wedel's scantily represented early complex has never been adequately dated. It lacked completely asphaltum, steatite, obsidian, and baked clay, all of which occurred in the upper levels. Wedel discussed the possible relationship of the early Buena Vista complex with the Windmiller complex of the Sacramento Valley and with the Oak Grove culture of the Santa Barbara coast and concluded that most specifically early Buena Vista resembled the Oak Grove culture. Wedel (1941:147) also offered his impression that Windmiller was "a later and considerably more developed phase than that suggested by the lower-level remains at Buena Vista." Wedel also commented that without corroborative evidence his guess was that nothing revealed by the Smithsonian excavations had an antiquity "much, if any, in excess of 1,200-1,500 years" (Wedel 1941:145).

Subsequent to Wedel's work, various age estimates were made for early Buena Vista. Meighan (1959) suggested a date of 2,000 to 4,000 years before the present; Heizer (1964) proposed the period 4,000 to 7,000 years B.P. and, linking the Buena Vista complex to the Windmiller culture, suggested some broad relationships similar to those made earlier by Wallace (1954), that the early complex was part of the early milling stone culture widespread in southern California. Baumhoff and Olmsted (1963, 1964, Baumhoff 1957), further proposed that the Buena Vista complex, the Windmiller complex of central California, and other early cultures of northern California were carried by a population of Hokan speakers and that in central California they were replaced about 4,000 years ago by Penutian speakers who carried what is known in central California as the Middle Horizon culture. Ragir (1972) has stated that Buena Vista "almost certainly" contains the equivalent of a Windmiller component.

Gerow (1974:47), supporting Wedel's impression of Buena Vista's weak linkage with Windmiller, drew together evidence to show that any connection between Windmiller and the early milling stone complexes of southern California was predicated on burial posture alone. In addition Gerow pointed out that evidence for extended posture in southern California becomes more certain after approximately 3000 B.C. Gerow (Gerow 1968:125-126) further questioned the hypothesis that Windmiller represented a Hokan population, offering considerable data in support of Penutian affiliation.

Wedel's late complex was clearly discontinuous from the earlier cultural assemblage, with respect to both stratigraphy and artifacts. Wedel divided the late complex into two phases. The early late phase, which he suggested may have begun about A.D. 1400, showed similarities with the Tulare Basin to the north. Wedel suggested that it may have been a simple, basic valley complex. Some distinctive traits of this early late phase included leaf-shaped and stemmed projectile points, charmstones, bone sweat scrapers, a predominance of Olivella split shell beads over Olivella disk beads, clay-lined roasting pits, and flexed burials.

The later protohistoric period, which Wedel suggested may have begun about A.D. 1500 or 1600, was an outgrowth of the earlier phase and had a larger variety of traits which showed strong influence from the coastal culture of the Santa Barbara region. The later protohistoric phase was distinguished by extensive use of asphaltum and steatite, baked clay objects, delicately made triangular projectile points, a more elaborate use of bone as an artifact material, a predominance of disk Olivella beads over the split shell forms, Haliotis beads and ornaments, and again flexed burials. The absence of Spanish contact materials, present in some quantity on the northern shoreline of the Lake (Walker 1935, 1947), ruled out significant aboriginal use of the investigated region after European contact.

During 1964 and 1965, prior to construction of the California Aquaduct, additional excavations were carried out on the southwestern shoreline of Buena Vista Lake, at CA-KER-116, by California's Division of Beaches and Parks (now the Department of Parks and Recreation) for the Department of Water Resources. The present writer directed the 1964 field work and advised during the 1965 work which was codirected by Joel W. Grossman and John Waller.

CA-KER-116 was actually a small part of an extensive occupation zone situated along the southern shoreline of old Buena Vista Lake at the foot of the Buena Vista Hills. This occupation zone was about 200 feet wide and extended in an approximate northwest-southeast line for a distance of about two miles along the lakeshore at the base of the hills. The occupation zone contained areas of greater and lesser concentrations of cultural debris which appeared to be related to natural features such as terrain which provided easy access to the hills above the lake.

The two shell middens excavated by Smithsonian workers, Wedel's Sites 1 and 2, were also located within this occupation zone and were undoubtedly the two largest and probably most important concentrations of midden along the two mile stretch. Wedel's Site 1 is at the approximate midpoint of the two mile stretch adjacent to a major drainage, while Site 2 was at the extreme eastern end of the stretch on a long, narrow sand bar. CA-KER-116 was at the extreme western end of the occupation zone.

CA-KER-116 was selected for investigation because geologic trenching made in connection with canal construction revealed burials, artifacts, and features extending to a respectable depth below surface, although surface appearances gave no indication of intensive occupation or significant depth. There was no mounding such as that present at Wedel's Sites 1 and 2. Among materials uncovered by geologic trenching were manos and extended interments; materials and context were suggestive of the early milling stone complex described by Wedel.

Subsequent archaeological excavation revealed that the site also contained a deeply buried component, about 4 meters deep, below the upper beach level, and stratigraphically inferior to the milling stone materials. This 4 meter component is thought to be linked to the San Dieguito Complex or, under another name, the Western Pluvial Lakes Tradition. The excavations at CA-KER-116, linked with the Smithsonian work of the 1930s, allows the presentation of the following cultural chronology, which I borrow in part (with some revisions of my own) from a survey manuscript by William Wallace (1971).

(1) The earliest occupation documented at Buena Vista Lake comes from the 4 meter level at CA-KER-116. Although only a meager artifact inventory was recovered, distinctive artifacts include a ground-stone atlatl spur and three chipped stone crescents, as well as fragments of several crudely made leaf-shaped projectile points. No food grinding implements were uncovered. Radiocarbon age determinations from freshwater clam shell yielded three dates compatible with the suggested cultural associations: two dates were 6250 B.C. and a third was 5650 B.C. (Fredrickson and Grossman 1977). Although the crescents, atlatl spur, and point fragments from the deeply buried Buena Vista assemblage are similar to specimens recovered from the presumably early Witt site on the southern shore of Tulare Lake (Riddell and Olsen 1969), the absence of stratigraphic data for the Tulare Lake collection prohibit more than hypothetical proposals regarding temporal and cultural relationships.

While it is often assumed that archaeological materials that derive from such an early time period, sometimes viewed as the Paleo-Indian Period, were left by big game hunters, there was nothing found at CA-KER-116 to support this view. Faunal remains, although sparse, were present and represented fresh water clam, fish, turtle, bird, and deer. The dominant use of the area appears to have been that of fishing-clamming station, with hunting an incidental activity.

(2) The next oldest archaeological manifestation at Buena Vista Lake, also represented by sparse remains, is the early milling stone assemblage found in the lower component of Wedel's sites 1 and 2 (Wedel 1941:153) and in the middle stratum at CA-KER-116 (Fredrickson and Grossman 1977). Handstones, milling stones, flake scrapers, and the extended burial posture are the only attributes that can be assigned to the complex with certainty. Cultural relationships of this assemblage are best understood with reference to Oak Grove and other milling stone complexes of southern California, not to Windmiller of the lower Sacramento Valley (Gerow 1974; Wallace 1954:120-121; Wedel 1941:147). Although seed grinding can reasonably be inferred from the milling implements, insufficient materials were recovered to allow further statements regarding the economy. Dating, too, must remain inferential. Although the milling stone horizon begins elsewhere in southern California as early as 5000 B.C. and persisted for 3,000 years or more (Wallace 1971), and to relatively recent times in some regions in southern California, the absence of chronometric data from Buena Vista Lake does not allow placement of the assemblage within this long time span.

As yet no assemblage has been found along the southwest shore of Buena Vista Lake which may fill in a presumed gap between the milling stone complex and the well-represented late period assemblage. Although Warren and McKusick (1959) attempted to establish a temporal sequence for the southern San Joaquin Valley based upon contrasting burial modes, their findings were inconclusive regarding artifactual associations and are potentially useful only in circumstances where burial mode can be identified and can be assumed to be related to historical traditions rather than synchronic intergroup or intragroup variation.

(3) The late period at Buena Vista Lake is represented at many sites in the vicinity in addition to those of Smithsonian and the California Aquaduct (Wallace 1971:39). At CA-KER-116 the bulk of the upper deposit represents the earlier phase of Wedel's late period, which the present writer has tentatively divided (without completing a full comparative analysis) into two subphases on the basis of suggestive stylistic and technological differences (Fredrickson 1964, 1965). The earlier subphase is thought to be distinguished by split-punched and whole spire-lopped Olivella beads and crudely made leaf-shaped projectile points. The later subphase is provisionally distinguished by proportionately more finished and rough disk Olivella beads and by a local bead making industry which may have utilized the rare whole-shell Olivella. Asphaltum occurred in small quantities, but steatite was quite rare. Clay-lined pits were present as were numerous "roasting ovens" filled with freshwater clam shell. Both subphases appeared to have utilized the hopper bowl mortar.

The split-punched Olivella bead, characteristic of the earlier subphase, is a common San Joaquin Valley type and is one of the most widespread shell bead types in the western Great Basin (Bennyhoff and Heizer 1958:66). This bead type is generally diagnostic of the earliest portions of Phase 1 of the Late Period in central California. This pushes Wedel's dating of A.D. 1400 for this assemblage back to about A.D. 900 to 1000 according to the "short chronology" for the central California sequence (Bennyhoff and Hughes n.d.). If the San Joaquin Valley is actually the source of the bead type, as has been tentatively suggested (Bennyhoff and Heizer 1958), this date may be a realistic one.

It is likely, considering the evidence for relatively continuous use of the lakeshore during this period and extending into the next, and the absence of cultural change other than that of essentially a stylistic nature, that the entire late period represents ancestral Yokuts. Wallace suggests that by this time:

the native inhabitants had worked out a diversified subsistence pattern through wider exploitation of the natural foods, plant and animal, of their lake and marsh environment and a cultural of greater material wealth and larger settlements [Wallace 1971:39].

(4) The final period at Buena Vista represents the protohistoric period, dated perhaps A.D. 1500 to the ethnographic period, and is represented by abundant use of both asphaltum and steatite, the occurrence of baked clay objects, delicate triangular projectile points, an elaborate bone technology, the bowl hopper mortar, disk Olivella beads, Haliotis beads and ornaments, and marine clam shell disk beads. Small pendants and carvings of steatite also occur. In short, the assemblage is probably immediately ancestral to the ethnographic Yokuts.

Since the 1960s, excavations at Buena Vista Lake have been conducted by local individuals and groups, including avocationalists. According to Schiffman and Garfinkel (1981:3-6), a report on one of these investigations, published by the Kern County Archaeological Society (Dieckman 1977), reviewed local artifacts and discussed historical questions pertaining to "Buena Vista Village."

In conclusion I can do no better than to rephrase to some extent, with some additions and changes, the questions posed by Wallace (1971:39 ff.) in his recent review of the Buena Vista region:

(1) What are the relationships between the cultural manifestations of the four chronological periods? Although the relationship between periods 3 and 4 as described above may possibly be related to cultural intensification associated with population growth and expanding exchange systems, relationships between the other periods are not understood. Present evidence seems to suggest that three separate cultural units are represented and the transitions were abrupt rather than gradual. Additional data, especially comparative material from adjoining localities, are needed to test alternative explanations.

(2) What was the nature of native economy during each of the several periods? Was the essential environment relatively unchanging for millennia? Can apparent shifts in subsistence technology be accounted for as responses to changing environmental conditions, or to the introduction of new technologies and ideas, or both? More data are needed regarding the economic mode of each period and of the reasons, such as climatic changes and/or population movement, that the apparent shifts occurred.

(3) Can it be assumed that there is a yet undescribed cultural manifestation that can be placed between the milling stone complex and the late period assemblage? From the perspective of cross-dating utilizing data from adjoining regions, there is a temporal gap as long as 2,000 years as yet unaccounted for. Discussion with workers familiar with the area suggest that a distinctive cultural pattern fills the gap but it has not yet been described. Perhaps the environmental work of the past decade has provided data on assemblages representing that pattern: the present writer is not sufficiently familiar with the local environmental literature to identify pertinent work.

(4) Lastly, what is the relationship, over time, between the Tulare Lake and the Buena Vista Basin. Although similarities between the two districts have been described, differences have also been noted (cf. Gifford and Schenck 1926:113-114). As Wallace (1971:41) has suggested, cultural development in the two districts may have followed different courses.


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Baumhoff, M.A. and D.L. Olmsted. 1963. Palaihnihan: Radiocarbon Support for Glottochronology. American Anthropologist 65(2):278-284.

Baumhoff, M.A. and D.L. Olmsted. 1964. Notes on Palaihnihan Culture History: Glottochronology and Archaeology. University of California Publications in Linguistics 34:1-12. Berkeley.

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