THE SALT CREEK PUPFISH
The great irony of this story is that while the Shoshonean People used the pupfish for food, the European-American invaders stole that source of food by displacing the Shoshonean People from their ancestral home. Having removed the Shoshonean People in whom they saw little or not 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.
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 rising seas again inundated it as the climate warmed and the last glaciers melted, about ten 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, which was a sign of their evolving culture and of their commitment to a 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 that today is known as “Death Valley” was lush and green with streams feeding 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.”
Then, 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, some of which are now extinct. These springs were found on fans of gravel from the erosion of surrounding mountains washed by water into the valley.
These wandering hunters were armed with spear and atlatl, which is a special stick forming an extension of one’s arm so as to increase the power of a thrown spear. Using spears and atlatls, these hunters ambushed big game, which was most likely plentiful in the well-watered valley where extensive marshlands surrounded the big lake and where 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 live in the valley before the final 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. Being of the desert, the Saratoga Springs People camped near the same springs we use today.
Big game was scarce, but the people brought the bow and arrow with them into the valley, 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 appears to have been more diverse than those of their predecessors. Although their tools were simple, the people possessed great skill. The women, for example, had a highly developed art of making baskets.
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 harvest beans of mesquite. But when the pinyon 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.
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 are virtually impossible to find. They become active, however, when the water warms in spring, and by March hundreds of fish 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 would enter the valley each in its turn and somehow interact 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.1
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 uniqueness of this fish in its own place in the Universe.
Each of these people, in their own way, have gained something and have given something through their sacred 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 the National Monument, protecting the fish to ensured, so far as possible, its continued existence, are giving the pupfish a gift of human consciousness and taking 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 discussion of the Shoshonean peoples and the Salt Creek Pupfish is based in part on: Clark, W.D. 1981. Death Valley, the story behind the scenery. KC Publ., Las Vegas, NV. 45 pp.
Text © by Chris Maser 2010. All rights reserved.