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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Agriculture Among the Paiute of Owens Valley


The Paiute of Owens Valley had by early historic time progressed to a substantial extent along the path toward large-scale food production. They are perhaps the best instance in North America of a group that developed its own system of vegeculture—a system carried over to include irrigation of a variety of seedbearing plants as well. The Owens Valley Paiute thus offer a better example of agricultural origins than any presently known archaeological cultures that already had domesticated crop plants. And this remarkable achievement of indigenous agriculture occurred in a group which, as Julian Steward (1970) concluded after nearly fifty years of study, had evolved only "proto-bands." This was a retraction of his earlier statement that they were grouped in true composite landowning bands (Steward 1938:50). Comment on that classification we leave for a future time.

Steward (1930:153) himself deserves credit for recognizing that the Owens Valley Paiute use of irrigation could contribute knowledge within the broader framework of the "origins of agriculture." Curiously, during Steward's own time, geographer Carl O. Sauer was carrying out research on the problems of agricultural origins and dispersals. Sauer believed that vegetative propagation had preceded seed cultivation and set out to develop a theoretical basis for locating the cradle of agriculture (Harlan 1975:46). Between Sauer (1952) and Edgar Anderson (1954) a model evolved suggesting that agricultural peoples were sedentary fisherfolk living in wooded lands and bringing aggressive plants back from their riverbanks that found natural places to sprout in the kitchen middens of their homes.

Evidence since has shown that some of the presuppositions of Sauer and Anderson were simplistic or incorrect (Harlan 1975:45). Nevertheless, it seems odd that Sauer, living in California, failed to note that Steward had called attention to practices that so nearly coincided with his own model for agricultural origins. Nearly fifty years have elapsed since Steward wrote his seminal paper on irrigation in Owens Valley, but as yet no anthropologists have mustered interest in closely studying the problem. It may well be too late to acquire much of the information which still remains unknown about Owens Valley agriculture— such as the dating of its origin and the conditions under which it began. Yet research in this neglected area by archaeologists, linguists, plant scientists, and other scholars could probably tell us as much about agricultural origins as current research on the subject being carried out elsewhere in the world.

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