Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts in Applied Archaeology



First Reader/Committee Chair

Gusick, Amy


Prehistoric life in the Colorado Desert endured a variety of environmental extremes. Episodic flooding and shifts in the course of the Colorado River resulted in the infilling of the Salton Basin and created a large freshwater lake known as Lake Cahuilla. Settlement along the different segments of the lakeshore is considered variable and may reflect accessibility to nearby viable resources. Remains from archaeological excavations at lakeshore sites show that lacustrine resources and fishing opportunities attracted prehistoric groups to the ancient lake. How prehistoric groups organized themselves and utilized lakeshore and nearby resources offer opportunities to explore the subsistence and mobility strategies of populations living in an oscillating environmental context.

Using information generated from past Cultural Resource Management projects, the current study analyzes multiple data sets to address questions of a regional scale to more fully understand the effects of cyclical Lake Cahuilla on desert inhabitants. Analysis of existing collections and their associated documentation from late prehistoric habitation sites adjacent to the northwestern maximum shoreline as well as recessional shoreline sites some 30 miles to the south provide additional information on resource availability in a changing environment. It appears that in some circumstances the northwestern lakeshore inhabitants adapted to a changing environment and maintained occupation spanning multiple lake stands. During high stands, subsistence practices focused on lacustrine resources until no longer viable and habitation sites feature specialized subsistence technology reflecting fish procurement and processing. During lake recession, at least short-term habitation was sustained and corresponded to the exploitation of specific fish and waterfowl species.

This study will help us better understand the strategies employed by groups who utilized the resources of this fluctuating lacustrine environment. Examination of resource use and mobility patterns practiced by prehistoric Lake Cahuilla inhabitants allows for interpretations of the adaptations necessary for life within this desert region. Ultimately, this research is applicable to broader anthropological queries on a regional scale. The Salton Basin is positioned within a geographical region that likely experienced influence and change from the surrounding environs. Gaining a deeper understanding of the study area will ultimately aid in future research concerning environmental adaptation, exchange relations, and culture change among the neighboring regions of the Mojave and Great Basin deserts, the agricultural Southwest, adjacent mountains and coast lines, and Baja California (Schaefer and Laylander 2007:381). Additionally, an understanding of how resource availability influenced past populations can contribute to ongoing and future studies concerned with resource management in the Colorado Desert and similar xeric environments.