It is hard to imagine, but dating back more than 2,000 years ago the Egyptians were erecting the Great Pyramids, and a prehistoric Native American culture was flourishing in what we now call Martis Valley. This Native American culture appears to have disappeared around 500 A.D. In 1953, R. F. Heizer and A. B. Elasser, University of California Berkeley, identified through archeological investigation this early Native American culture. Because of the location of this early group, they came to be known as the Martis Complex.
The Martis Complex culture spent summers in the high meadows of the Martis area – and retreated to the foothills of both the Eastern and Western foothills of the North Central Sierra mountain range. Summers probably found these people living in small family groups in meadows near water, hunting and gathering seeds and grasses. They likely hunted for deer and mountain sheep, bear and mountain lion. The nearby streams provided trout. There were also wolves, the occasional bison, elk, coyotes, bobcats and numerous rodents and other small game. It was not an easy life, but it did allow for the Martis people to survive in the area for roughly 2,000 years. The culture is characterized by several elements:
1. They preferred basalt (a dark, fine-grained volcanic rock) to make projectile points, scrapers and awls. There are many outcroppings of basalt in the Martis Valley area. They rarely used obsidian as it was not easily obtained. The projectile points were large, heavy and variable in form. They did not know of the bow and arrow – it was introduced around 500 B.C. But they did use the atlatl – a spear form that uses leverage to achieve greater velocity in throwing darts.
2. They used a milling stone slab (metate) and hand held stones (mano) to grind seeds.
3. The Martis people did not have characteristically ceremonial objects such as charm stones, stone or shell beads.
4. They were responsible for numerous rock carvings – most referred to as “pecked petroglyphs”. An example of this type of carving is located and marked at Kyburz Meadows – north of Truckee off Highway 89.
It is not readily known why the Martis Complex left the area. Climate change may have had something to do with their disappearance. It is believed that the area became very hot and dry and the weather may have made it less favorable for the seasonal movements of the tribe to hunt game.
The Washo people followed the Martis Culture into the area about 500 years ago. More is known about this Native American group, the Washo (Wa She Shu) are still a thriving culture in Nevada today. Washo lands were centered around Lake Tahoe but ranged as far north as Honey Lake and south to the Walker River area. In the same way as the Martis culture, the Washo were seasonally nomadic – ranging into the high Sierra meadows and peaks during the summer months and retreating to the relatively low snow areas of the Truckee meadows in the winter.
Martis Cave, a remnant of the early Martis culture, is still accessible today. Located near Martis Lake dam, excavations in the cave have dated artifacts and soot on the cave ceiling to 15,000 years ago!
We are clearly the “newcomers” to Martis Valley!