The Salt Creek Pupfish
The Ancient Ones
As the last glacial stage of the Pleistocene Epoch, which began about seventy thousand years ago, reached its maximum development, subarctic plants and animals occurred as far south as what today are the states of Virginia and Texas. During the height of the glacier's development, the Bering-Chukchi Platform (also called the Trans-Bering Land Bridge) between the continents of North America and Eurasia was exposed because the sea was approximately 328 feet below its present level. When fully exposed, the Bering-Chukchi Platform was a flat isthmus about a thousand miles wide between what is now northeastern Siberia and Alaska. It remained open to migrating plants and animals—including the Ancient Ones, the ancestors of today's Aboriginal North Americans—until it was again inundated by rising seas as the climate warmed and the last glaciers melted, between ten and seven thousand years ago.
These Ancient Ones were hunters of big game. As millennia passed, the hunters gradually became nomadic foragers who subsisted by gathering, fishing, and hunting small animals. In more recent times, the nomadic foragers settled into semi-permanent and permanent communities and finally became agriculturalists whose economy depended on farm crops as well as hunting with spears and bows and arrows, gathering, and fishing. They also made pottery, a sign of their evolving culture and commitment to a sense of place.
The Valley And Its People
While the Ancient Ones were migrating south and east out of what is now Alaska, between twenty thousand and fifteen thousand years ago, the valley, today known as "Death Valley," was lush and green. In addition, streams fed through interconnected lakes into a huge lake, six hundred feet deep. In these streams and lakes lived a tiny fish, about three inches long, today called a "pupfish."
About nine thousand years ago, approximately a thousand years after the close of the last ice age, the Nevares Spring People moved into the valley. The earliest known inhabitants, they camped near springs found on fans of gravel, which water washed into the valley as it eroded surrounding mountains. Time has dried some of the springs, and they're now extinct.
These wandering hunters were armed with spear and atlatl, which is a special stick forming an extension of the human arm so as to increase the power of a thrown spear. Using spears and atlatls, they ambushed big game, which was plentiful in the well-watered valley, where extensive marshlands surrounded the big lake, while juniper trees covered the lower mountains. Somewhere in time, the people left the valley, probably because the game animals disappeared as the climate became even warmer and drier than it is today, which means summer temperatures ranged anywhere from 110 to over 130 degrees Fahrenheit and the average annual rainfall was about one and a half inches or less.
Around five thousand years ago, the Mesquite Flat People came into the valley. They arrived during a wet period and once again lived as wandering bands of hunters who camped low in the valley and on the fans of gravel above the valley's floor. Like the Nevares Spring People before them, they hunted with spears and atlatls.
They augmented their diet of meat by gathering wild plants and by grinding seeds with stone mortars and pestles. The people inhabited the valley for about two thousand years until 1,000 B.C. They lived in the valley before the last lake dried up and formed the flat, saltpan one sees today on the valley's floor.
The Saratoga Springs People came into the valley around 900 A.D. and stayed for about two hundred years until 1100 A.D. The climate during this time was much like it is today, although there were brief periods of wetter weather. The Saratoga Springs People camped near the same springs in use today.
Big game was scarce, but the people brought the bow and arrow with them, which was an advantage in hunting. In addition to big game, they also hunted and trapped the abundant small rodents and lizards. The Saratoga Springs People augmented their diet with plants and with seeds ground into flour between smooth rocks.
A few Saratoga Springs People may have been living in the valley when the first Shoshonean People arrived about 1,000 A.D. The Shoshonean culture seems more diverse than those of their predecessors. Although their tools were simple, the people possessed great skill, as exemplified by the women's highly developed art of basket making.
The Shoshonean People were the seed gathers of the desert. Much of the year they lived among the sand dunes in simple shelters of brush, where they harvested mesquite beans. But when the piñion nuts ripened, they camped in the nearby Panamit Mountains for the harvest. They also gathered what other seeds they could and, like the people before them, used smooth flat rocks to grind seeds into flour.
In addition to gathering plants, they hunted such small animals as rodents and lizards and even ate adult insects and the grubs of beetles. The ability of these people to find and utilize whatever foods the desert offered was the key to their survival.
Pupfish, The One Species Becomes The Many
As the climate began to warm and dry in the time of the Nevares Spring People, the waters connecting the lakes went from perennial streams, to intermittent streams, to dry beds, and the lakes began to evaporate and shrink, becoming saltier as they did so. Thus, the contiguous population of pupfish inhabiting the originally connected waters of the valley became increasingly fragmented and isolated until they evolved into nine separate species.
By the time the Shoshonean People arrived in the valley, by now the hottest, driest place in North America north of Mexico, the pupfishes were already clinging to existence in completely isolated, fragile habitats, some in deep holes, some in salty creeks, and some in warm springs. One of these habitats is Salt Creek.
Salt Creek comes out of deep springs and flows on the surface for about two miles during the relatively cool months of winter and spring, before evaporating. In the intense heat of summer, however, the creek shrinks back to the pools of its source.
Salt Creek is the home of the Salt Creek pupfish, which in the entire Universe is found only here. During winter, when the water is cold, the fish are dormant in the mud of the bottom and virtually impossible to find. They become active, however, when the water warms in spring, and by March hundreds are visible. As the days get warmer and evaporation increases, the creek and the majority of its pools dry up, and most pupfish die. Only a small percent survive the summer in the deep springs that form the creek's source.
Humans And The Salt Creek Pupfish
As the land changed over thousands of years, the single species of pupfish became the many species. In addition, various human cultures entered the valley and, each in its turn, interacted somehow with the pupfish. Although the cultures, before the days of the Shoshonean People, each had a relationship with and an effect on the pupfish simply by sharing its habitat, it's during the time of the Shoshonean People that the Salt Creek pupfish is known to have been become food for humans. In spring, when the fish became numerous, the people collected them in large, porous baskets. The fish were then baked in layers between tule reeds and hot ashes and eaten.
The simple society of the Shoshonean People afforded two things that have so far eluded us in modern life, ample leisure time and the peace to enjoy it. Their free time was not, however, devoted to improving their standard of living, as is ours, because that rung on the cultural ladder was unattainable in an environment permitting no cultural revolution.
The environment also precluded the luxury of war, an activity that requires its own technology, as well as perceived resources to squander. When warlike tribes entered the valley, the residents just slipped quietly away and hid until the intruders left.
The first European-Americans came into the valley in 1849. They, however, were simply lost. But in 1850, prospectors began pouring into the valley. The Shoshone reacted to the influx of European-Americans as they had reacted to all other invaders. But whereas the previous interlopers had always departed after a time, the prospectors, seeking to exploit the mineral wealth of the valley without interference, persisted in the valley and displaced the Shoshonean People.
Then in 1933, Death Valley National Monument was established, and a different kind of relationship began between the Salt Creek pupfish and humans. Recognizing the pupfish as a distinct species occurring only in this one, tiny creek, the people of the National Park Service devised a method of protecting the fish's habitat, while at the same time allowing thousands of visitors to experience the marvel of this tiny creature.
These people, each in their own, unique way, have gained something and given something through their participation with the Salt Creek pupfish. The Nevares Spring People, the Mesquite Flat People, and the Saratoga Springs People shared the pupfish's habitat in the mutual relationship of life in the valley. The Shoshonean People (some of whom still live around Death Valley) took from the fish its life as food in the great, mystic cycle of death feeding life, for which they gave thanks. The people of Death Valley National Monument, protecting the fish to ensure its continued existence, as far as humanly possible, are giving the pupfish the benefit of human consciousness and, in return, take with them a sense of moral ascendancy. And the tourists who visit Salt Creek receive from the fish a sense of spiritual enrichment, ecological awareness, and the wonder of Nature, while simultaneously affecting the fish by their presence in observing it.
The great irony of this story is that, while the Shoshonean People used the pupfish for food, the European-Americans stole that source of food by displacing the Shoshonean People from their ancestral home. Having removed the Shoshonean People, in whom they saw no value, the European-Americans, who were so destructive in their exploitation of the land they stole, ultimately turned around and responded to the pupfish through protection, scientific study, and enjoyment. But what about the Shoshonean People of today? They're still displaced, still accorded lesser value than the pupfish. Why?
Clark, W.D. 1981. Death Valley, the story behind the scenery. KC Publ., Las Vegas, NV. 45 pp.
©chris maser 2005. All rights reserved.