Sunshine Locality

Photograph Courtesy of C. Beck and G. Jones.

Sunshine Locality artifacts.

The Sunshine Locality is a National Historic Register Palaeoarchaic archaeological site located in Long Valley, White Pine County, Nevada. This site, which gets its name from the nearby Sunshine Well, has been the focus of archaeological interest for more than fifty years because of its extensive surface deposits, believed to be representative of some of the earliest occupants of North America.

Recent excavations during the late 1980s through the mid-1990s performed by the Nevada State Museum, the Desert Research Institute, and Hamilton College, exposed bones of extinct animals (camel and horse) in the same locations as stone tools. Associations between extinct animals (usually mammoth, bison) and human-made tools are rare in North America, but have been used by some to argue that early people were "big game hunters." Such associations have not been found in the Great Basin, which is why the discovery at the Sunshine Locality was exciting, even though the materials were in river gravels, and thus did not represent an unequivocal association.

In addition, exclusive of the camel and horse specimens, the animal fossils recovered from these excavations is one of the few in Nevada from this period of transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene periods (12,000 to 8,000 radiocarbon years ago.) Although these materials are probably not directly related to human subsistence, the animal species represented are indicative of the climate and environment of the site at this time. Thus there is great potential from this remarkable site to answer a number of important questions concerning the Pleistocene/Holocene transition in this region.

The primary factor that attracted researchers and amateurs to the Sunshine Locality is the extraordinary size and composition of the artifacts lying on the surface over an area of at least three square kilometers. Between 20,000 and 25,000 artifacts are known to have been recovered from the surface of this site over the last fifty years. At least twenty fluted points have been collected, which have been assumed by most archaeologists to represent the Clovis Tradition "big game hunting," but actually may represent a somewhat later development at this location. Although fluted points occur throughout Nevada and the Great Basin, there are only four sites where more than two or three occur, making the Sunshine Locality especially noteworthy.

In addition, literally hundreds of points attributable to the Great Basin Stemmed Point Series have been found at this site. Some archaeologists argue that these points are either contemporaneous with, or earlier than, fluted points in the Great Basin. This is a question that is still highly debated because Clovis fluted points have generally been regarded as representing the earliest significant occupation all across North America. At Sunshine a stemmed point and a fluted point were found in the same stratum indicating contemporaneity between the two. This find opens the possibility that two different populations may have colonized the Great Basin during the late Pleistocene.

Another important artifact type that occurs in large numbers at the Sunshine Locality is the crescent. Crescents are enigmatic in that archaeologists have not been able to determine their function. Speculation has ranged from surgical instruments to cutting implements to ornaments. The most widely held hypothesis is that they were hafted to a shaft transversely and used to stun water birds. The Sunshine assemblage contains 246 of these artifacts, perhaps the largest collection of crescents from a single site in the Great Basin. Finally, there are large numbers of other tools found in Paleoindian tool kits across the country, such as gravers, notchers, drills, and scrapers.

The excavations produced not only bones of extinct animals in apparent association with stone tools, but also twenty-three radiocarbon dates that pinpoint the primary occupation of people between approximately 10,500 and 8,500 radiocarbon years (rcy) ago. Although today Long Valley may appear to be a desolate place, this was certainly not the case during the terminal Pleistocene and early Holocene. At that time there was plenty of water in Sunshine Wash, in a deeply cut stream that flowed southward through the site. By about 10,000 rcy ago, the stream flow had slowed and there was a well-developed marsh over much of the site, which was an extremely productive habitat for people and animals alike. Although there is no direct evidence of what people were eating at this time, the artifact distributions at the Sunshine Locality and at contemporaneous sites elsewhere in Nevada and the Great Basin strongly suggest that marshes, shallow lakes, and streams were extremely important for humans because of the plants that grew there and the animals and birds they attracted.

Human populations at this time were highly mobile, traveling upwards of 200 kilometers in a single year. The Sunshine Locality appears to have been one of those locations that people visited repeatedly for perhaps 2,000 years as they passed through the area, until the marsh dried and water became scarce, about 8,500 rcy ago. After this time, people seem to have visited the Sunshine Locality only occasionally, if at all.

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