An Evening with Dennis Cassinelli at the Gold Hill Hotel (2005)

Video

Dennis discusses American Indian stone tools, and he illustrates his lecture with actual display boards from the Cassinelli-Perino Artifact Collection. He also talks about the discovery of the Spirit Cave Man mummy, as well as how he helped unearth a cache of rare coin dies at the Carson City Museum, formerly the Carson City Mint.

Recorded 4/19/2005.

Mammoth hunting in Nevada

I hope the title of my article does not prompt some local nimrods to apply to the Nevada Department of Wildlife for a mammoth tag. On the other hand, I can tell you with some authority that at one time, mammoth and other giant animals left over from the Pleistocene Age were hunted and eaten by some of the earliest hunters to enter the areas around the Great Basin.

Mammoth Tooth

This mammoth tooth is on permanent display at the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center in Gardnerville, Nevada, as part of the Cassinelli-Perino Artifact Collection.

In my younger years, I was an avid hunter of deer, antelope and upland game found in the deserts and mountains of the Great Basin. In those days, a hunting license cost $5, and a deer tag could be purchased over the counter for $7.50. Those days are long gone, but I still enjoy getting out in the hills and letting the elusive Chukar partridge make a complete fool of me.

I honestly can say that I have hunted one native Nevada animal that most hunters never even knew existed here. It may come as a shock to some people living in or visiting our fair state to learn that in years past, the slopes of the mountains and valleys of Nevada were grazed by herds of elephants, more properly known as mammoths. Imagine, if you can, driving across the desert hills near Winnemucca and spotting a family of elephants browsing along the banks of the Humboldt River. My first encounter of this beast was in the early 1960s when I was a field engineer for the Nevada Highway Department. I was working in the Winnemucca District Office when Jerry Fitch, the local resident engineer, invited me to go with him to the Rose Creek Gravel Pit about 10 miles west of town where an equipment operator had just uncovered a huge tusk in the floor of the pit. The blade of the scraper had skimmed the tusk, revealing the distinctive, nearly full curl of a mature mammoth tusk fossil.

Fitch notified Donald Tuohy at the Nevada State Museum of the discovery. Tuohy came out and spent several days hand-excavating the tusk and encasing it in a plaster-of-Paris cast so it could be transported without breaking. The tusk was taken to the museum storage facility in Carson City. I recently asked archaeologist Eugene Hatouri whatever became of the tusk. He told me it was still in storage and never had been removed from the plaster cast. I have seen other museum displays where such tusks were cleaned and polished so visitors could see, touch and feel the warmth and grain of the beautiful fossilized ivory. It almost gives a person a connection to the original animal to be able to touch and feel this polished ivory.

The Nevada State Museum has a display of a huge Imperial Mammoth skeleton that was found in the Black Rock Desert. The display is made of plastic castings of the original bones, as the originals are so heavy. I would challenge the staff at the museum to clean and polish one of the original ivory tusks for people to see and touch. The experience is unforgettable. Many mammoth sites have been discovered in the Black Rock Desert. Some of the sites had Clovis points nearby, indicating early hunters may have hunted or killed the animals. Clovis points are the stone lance tips that were used by early man for hunting mammoth before the creatures went extinct about 10,000 years ago.

It is well-known that Early Man entered the Great Basin more than 10,000 years ago. These people were hunter-gatherers who roamed the region in search of food. It’s also known that a few mammoths still roamed the region at the same time. Many mammoth remains from that time period have been uncovered. Many human hunting camps have been found from that same time. Clovis points have been found at some of these hunting camps. In other areas, Clovis points were used exclusively for mammoth hunting. By simple logic, we can conclude that the hunters were engaged in hunting the few remaining pachyderms.

My next encounter with a mammoth was a few years later when I was the one who made a discovery of mammoth remains. I was taking soil samples under the West Winnemucca Interstate-80 interchange when I noticed some fossilized material in the recently excavated roadway fill. I gathered up the fossils and put them in a canvas sample bag. I called Amy Dansie, fondly known at the Nevada State Museum as “The Bone Lady.” When I told her I had found some fossilized bones, she was skeptical and said I probably had just found some old cow bones. When I took them in to the museum for her to see, she looked in the bag and exclaimed, “Wow! These are Pleistocenes!”

I replied that I did not know what they were, but that there sure weren’t any live ones running around. Amy told me the fossils I had found were the teeth and jawbone of a young mammoth. She sent a paleontologist out to investigate further, but no more remains were found. She put the bag of mammoth teeth into storage with other such samples — except for one tooth, which I kept. I coated the crumbling fossil with resin to protect it and donated it to the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center, where it is on display with a collection of Indian artifacts I had given to them. In Douglas County, there have been some excavations of mastodon bones in the Pine Nut Mountains. The Bureau of Land Management is limiting off-road vehicular travel into the Ruhenstroth area to protect the fossils in this region.

If you would like to read about how Early Man hunted and processed mammoth meat 10,000 years ago, I suggest you get a copy of a book I have written titled Legends of Spirit Cave. It is available at the Gold Hill Hotel bookstore near Virginia City. The book is a prehistoric novel that shows how people lived in this area near the end of the Pleistocene Age about 10,000 years ago, including how they hunted and killed the last mammoth. (The first chapter of the book, titled “The Last Mammoth,” can be read in its entirety right here.) Although the book is fiction, the way the people lived, the foods they ate, the medicines they used and the ways they interacted with one another all is researched and factual information. It is a fun book to read, and it really takes you back to the time when ancient hunters of Nevada pursued the mighty mammoth with nothing more than sharpened sticks and stones.

Rock art for your yard

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

IMITATION ROCK ART FOR SALE: $40-$50, depending on size, complexity and quality of design. Local delivery within 30 miles of Carson City, Nevada, for additional $10. Small rocks also available.

For many years, I was a construction inspector for the Nevada Department of Transportation and for several consulting engineering companies providing inspection services on highway construction projects. This vocation took me to nearly every town in Nevada and to the surrounding states as well. Sometimes, out of boredom while waiting for the next load of pavement to arrive, I would gather a few of the chocolate-colored boulders covered with desert varnish that could be found alongside the highway.

With a sharp rock or even a hammer and chisel, I would carve petroglyph designs on the boulders by cutting away the thin layer of desert varnish. This resulted in a sharp image of lighter color just as one would see on a genuine Indian petroglyph. I would leave these works of art in the back of my pickup truck until one or more of the workers on the crew spotted them. The question usually asked was, “Where did you find those petroglyphs?”

The designs were convincing enough, I could have fooled some of the people they were genuine petroglyphs. I always fessed up that they were of my own creation and more often than not, the guys I showed them to offered to buy them from me. The attraction of owning one of these creations is to set it in a strategic location in your yard where visitors might think they were the genuine article.

I estimate I have made and sold hundreds of these imitation petroglyphs and given many others to friends and relatives. I never had a craft show, garage sale or yard sale where I did not sell out my entire inventory of rock art.

I have searched the various petroglyph sites to find interesting designs of petroglyphs from many sites around the American West. Some of the designs by the early native Indians were truly works of art. Some may seem crude by modern standards but they reflect the imagination and talents of hunters and craftsmen from hundreds and thousands of years ago.

In a previous article, I told about the various types of petroglyphs that can be found in the few remaining places where we can still go to see them. In addition to the unexplained images of spirals, parallel lines, zig-zags and curved lines, there are hundreds of other more recognizable images. Some of my favorite subjects are human images of warriors, shamans, and ghost-like semi-human creatures. Others seem to depict galaxies and even space craft-like conveyances. What inspired the creators of these type of images is anyone’s guess.

Animal figures drawn by the ancient hunters are always interesting topics. I have seen hundreds of images of deer, elk, bison, bears, lizards, bighorn sheep, mountain lions and other creatures drawn by the ancient hunters. It seems they liked to display the animals they hunted either as a wish for a successful hunt or as a way of displaying something they had actually taken.

I have considered going into the business of selling my petroglyph art work on a large scale to people who would appreciate an interesting depiction of art from our prehistoric past. A limiting factor to this venture is the logistics and cost of shipping a heavy boulder and still keeping the price within reason.

If prehistoric rock art is of interest to you, please contact me using the form below.

The pine nut harvest

Every fall for hundreds of years, the local Indians made their annual trek to the hills in search of the pine nuts that were a necessity for their sustenance. The various tribes, including the Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone, set up camps in the areas where the gathering was most productive. For several days each fall, they combed the short, single-leaf pinyon trees (Pinus monophylla) to gather the pitch-covered cones and extract the plump, nutritious nuts.

The traditional way the nuts were prepared by the Indians was to hull them with a flat stone, winnow away the shells and then grind the nuts into a paste, which they used to make a thick soup. They also ate them raw or roasted, which enhanced the delicious flavor. Following the discovery of silver in the Comstock mines and the increased demand for timber and wood products, the stands of native pinyon pine practically disappeared. The Indians soon were without one of the staples of their existence. No longer were they able to gather enough of the rich, nutritious nuts to survive the cold Nevada winters. They became more and more dependent on jobs they found working for the same white men who had destroyed the pinyon forests.

After the Comstock boom entered a decline, the pinyon forests began a gradual natural reforestation. Today, there are many thousands of acres of fine, thick pinyon and juniper forests in the lands where they once grew abundantly. This includes the immediate areas around Geiger Grade, the truck route toward Dayton and the Como hills. The pinyon forests are thriving in all traditional areas except where periodic fires have destroyed them or the Bureau of Land Management practice of “chaining” the forests have destroyed some sections. Chaining is the process of dragging a long section of ship anchor chain between two Caterpillar tractors through a forested area. This is done to tear out the trees to make the land more suitable for livestock. It is highly questionable whether or not this method works at all.

There are many traditional ways of gathering the nuts. Once promising trees are found, gatherers can pick the nuts off the ground if the cones have opened and the nuts are falling out. This can be made easier if long poles are used to knock the cones to shake the nuts loose. Some people spread tarps or blankets under the trees to facilitate picking up the nuts. If the cones have not opened yet, the task is more difficult. The cones must be taken from the tree and pulled apart to reveal the dark brown nuts in pairs beneath the scales of the cones. This method quickly results in pitch-covered hands, fingers and clothing. The pitch can be removed with Crisco, baby oil or turpentine. I carry a small plastic bottle of baby oil and a few rags so I can clean my hands every few minutes.

Sometimes the nuts are small, and other times they are plump. Only the dark brown ones are good to eat. The light tan ones usually are dried out and hollow. They can be separated by floating off the hollow ones in water after you get home. We usually sprinkle salt over the wet nuts and bake them on a baking sheet for about 15 minutes. You can tell when they are done by the intense pine smell or when they pop.

In modern times, the white residents of the area have joined the Indians in the annual hunt for the prized pinyon nuts. Not every area will be productive every year. Some years will be more productive than others. Usually, there will be at least one area around the state where pine nuts can be found in a given year. Years ago, I remember gathering the cones from the trees along Geiger Grade and putting them in burlap potato bags. We took them to the then-active steam vents at Steamboat Hot Springs and placed the bags of cones in the hot steam. The steam melted the pitch, roasted the nuts and opened the cones so the nuts could be removed easily. Archaeological evidence shows the Indians of old used similar methods.

At Anchor Storage along U.S. 395 just south of Steamboat, there is a huge boulder the size of a large SUV. You can drive up to the office and look at the boulder. It is the largest Indian artifact I have ever seen in Nevada. The top of the boulder is covered with several smooth metate-shaped indentations where Indians ground their pine nuts for centuries. The people at the storage facility don’t mind if you stop to take a look.

The old Italian families had a favorite pesto recipe for using pine nuts. My wife still makes pesto with fresh basil, garlic, parmesan cheese, salt, olive oil and, of course, pine nuts. This is blended into a paste and used as a pasta sauce or as a spread for pizza or on French bread. It just isn’t pesto without the zesty flavor of pine nuts.

Pine-nut gatherers have a myriad of excuses for unsuccessful trips pine nut hunting, such as the following:

(1.) The weather has been too hot or too cold.
(2.) It is too early or too late in the season.
(3.) The birds, squirrels or chipmunks ate them all.
(4.) There has been too much or not enough rain.
(5.) The Indians beat us to the best areas.
(6.) Or, my favorite: Let’s buy them at Raley’s for $12 per pound, because it will be cheaper in the long run and we won’t get pitch all over everything.

Phallic pestle unearthed in Carson City

stone pestle

A pestle is a long piece of stone intentionally shaped to be used in a bowl-shaped piece of stone called a mortar.

Between May 2008 and January 2009, I was working as an inspector on the section of the Carson City Freeway Bypass from US Highway 50 to Fairview Drive. Before the project began, I attended a public open house of the project site to see the archaeological excavations being performed by the Louis Berger Group, Inc., consulting archaeologist hired by the Nevada Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. It appeared that the project route passed over a known prehistoric site that included a large Indian village that had been occupied for over one thousand years between 425 AD and 1470 AD.

The Louis Berger archaeologists discovered over 150 prehistoric features such as houses, storage pits, fire hearths, roasting pits and activity areas. The site represents one of the largest prehistoric villages ever discovered in northern Nevada. Thousands of prehistoric artifacts were uncovered during the scientific excavations, indicating the various daily activities which the people living there performed. These artifacts included projectile points, scrapers, manos, metates, mortars and pestles. I submitted a resume of my qualifications to help identify the artifacts but my offer was not accepted.

Several months after the archaeological field work was completed, construction began on the project. I was contacted by PBS&J Consulting Engineers to be an inspector for several phases of the work. I was told that the Louis Berger Group archaeologists had completed their field work and even though there was a possibility some artifacts may still remain undiscovered, they had sufficient material to complete their report. One of my assigned duties was to inspect the installation of highway lighting components along the freeway ramps north of the Fairview interchange. This included grading, trenching and installing conduits and concrete lighting system footings.

Having developed an eye for spotting arrowheads and other traces of ancient habitation, I noticed some charcoal remnants of old fire pits along the west slope of the Fairview exit ramp. As work progressed on the lighting system, I picked up a few broken projectile points and a 4” piece of a stone pestle that appeared to have been broken by excavation equipment. It appeared to have both ends broken off and the breaks seemed to be recently done. I had discovered many fragments such as this in the past and did not consider it of much importance. I put the stone in my toolbox and forgot about it for several days.

A stone pestle is a long piece of stone intentionally shaped to be used in a bowl shaped piece of stone called a mortar. The Indians used these tools to grind up seeds, cattail roots and other food items they had gathered. These have been found in several different sizes ranging from a few inches to a foot or more in length. After a few days I found another piece of the same pestle near where the first one was found. This one was about 7” in length and fit perfectly onto one end of the first piece.

The amazing thing I noticed about this second piece of the puzzle was the shape of the end, which resembled a male appendage. This surely perked up my interest and I made an all-out effort to find the last piece so I could reassemble the entire artifact. Sure enough, after a few more days of carefully inspecting the slope, I found the third and final piece and was able to connect the three together with stone masons epoxy. The resulting completed artifact was a whopping fifteen and one half inches long and weighed seven pounds.

I looked online and found that such artifacts are very rare and are called “Phallic Pestles.” I found several photos of similar items, but without bragging, I can honestly say that none of those shown were as long as mine. Because I found the pestle on state property, I felt an obligation to take it to Eugene M. Hattori, curator of anthropology at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. Gene was the archaeologist who was called in to excavate the 500 Carson City coin dies I had found at the old mint building back in 1999. He confirmed that the item was a genuine phallic pestle and said that to his knowledge, it was the first one ever reported from Nevada.

I agreed to make a donation of the amazing artifact to the “Under One Sky” exhibit at the museum with the understanding that it would be placed on public display and not hidden away in some storage room where no one would ever see it again. The Museum is expanding their Native American display area and the pestle will be displayed when the expansion is completed.