Native Village  Youth and Education news
February 2010 Volume 3

Ancient Miwok harvested salt
By Don Baumgart
Condensed by Native Village


California: New evidence suggests the Miwok were among the first Native tribes to move from being hunter-gatherers to traders.

Researchers James Moore and Michael Diggles from the USGS (United States Geological Service) have located 369 basins between Yosemite and Tahoe. The basins are carved in glaciated granitic bedrock and are one meter deep and one and a half meters across.  They were used to harvest salt for trade. 

The Miwok worked hard and long to mine salt.  First, the basins had to be created.  Then, fires were built on the granite to make the bedrock flake off in small layers. The Miwok repeated this process about 100 times until the depressions were large enough.

“It’s not that hard, you just build a fire and let it burn out," Diggles said.  "But you spend a lot of your time just gathering firewood. A lot of firewood." He estimates it took at least 40 Miwok families to support the salt makers.

The tribe would fill each basin with water from nearby salt-springs. When the water evaporated, the salt remained.

"Ten families could have harvested the salt from the 300 plus basins," Diggles said. But those people wouldn’t have time to do anything else.”

Each season, the Miwok produced a ton-and-a-half of salt

"This salt is good stuff," Diggles said.  "My wife cooked with it the other day. I carved a bit off the side of a rock with my Swiss Army knife and brought it home. Good salt.”

The main salt-making season is assumed to be 122 days  in from June - September. This is the period with the highest temperature, highest sun angles, and greatest evaporation rates. It is almost free of rain and snow.

Diggles tells about an account written before the Gold Rush. It mentioned a Washoe Indian heading to the area to trade to trade for salt. “Salt trading was still going on as recently as the early 1800s,"  Diggles said. 

He is not sure, however, how old the basins are.

“They could be as old as 8,000 years. They don’t wear out. They’re not like the acorn pounding stones that get deeper with use," he said.

The Miwok site is the most impressive prehistoric saltworks discovered in North America.

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