Exploring The Eastern Pinto Basin (Joshua Tree National Park)

Fossil beds in the Pinto Basin. Coxcomb Mountains in the background.

It isn’t often that I use the word “exploring,” I find the term is over used and holds little meaning. I avoid calling myself an “explorer,” having opted for the title of “adventurer.” Why? Because to “explore” or to be an “explorer” one must venture into places that have never been seen before, or have had little in terms of research, or recent research. Let’s face it, there are few places in North America that fit that bill. I do however believe that the eastern Pinto Basin is worthy of such a title due to the lack of documented exploration in the past 50+ years.

In the 1930s the husband and wife team of Elizabeth and William Campbell, both amateur archaeologists, performed extensive research of the very remote eastern corner of the Pinto Basin. The artifacts they found were the cornerstone of research on a people that they dubbed the Pinto Basin People.

 

Looking across Pinto Basin from the east.

Looking across Pinto Basin from the east.

 

Ancient river bed in Pinto Basin. A fresh water river flowed through the basin 5,000 years ago.

Ancient river bed in Pinto Basin. A fresh water river flowed through the basin 5,000 years ago.

 

Along the shore line of an ancient river, the Campbell’s found the traces of entire village sites. Metates, and Manos, pestles and hammerstones, scrapers and knives made of obsidian, slate, and chert. Leaf-shaped points flaked from rock crystal, jasper, quartzite, chert, chalcedony, and obsidian. Then of course the points (arrowheads), made of obsidian, jasper, rhyolite, milky quartz, and rock crystal. Based on this evidence archaeologists have been able to place these early humans to the basin between 4,000 – 8,000 years ago.

In addition to the discovery of an ancient human civilization the Campbell’s also found fossilized remains of both horses and camels from the Pleistocene Epoc. The Pleistocene Epoc spanned from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago, it was the last Ice Age.

Today one would have a very difficult time surviving a day, let alone a lifetime in the harsh Pinto Basin environment. Water and food sources are scarce, and temperatures in the summer top 100 degrees on a daily basis. During the time of the Pinto Basin people, the basin had at least one flowing fresh water river, the climate was more temperate, and food was readily available. The now bare Pinto Mountains to the north were forested, and full of life. During the Pleistocene Epoc, the basin was a swampland of lakes and rivers with large, now extinct mammals roaming the land. A stark contrast from the modern-day basin.

Recently I came across a copy of the Campbell’s 1935 map of the Pinto Basin. The map highlighted the shore lines of the ancient river, and the camps of the Pinto Basin People. Knowing the extensive collection of artifacts that the duo managed to amass from these camp sites I was curious what I could find eighty-years later. (NOTE: I am not an artifact collector, whatever I find is left where I found it. It is against the law to remove anything from a National Park, or anything 50 years or older from BLM land. It is also important to note that digging for artifacts is against the law.)

 

Sunset the night prior. Looking out toward the basin and the Coxcombs from the Park boundary.

Sunset the night prior. Looking out toward the basin and the Coxcombs from the Park boundary.

 

Sunset - Dark red colors on the southern Coxcomb Range.

Sunset – Dark red colors on the southern Coxcomb Range.

 

The Belt of Venus.

The Belt of Venus.

 

On a hot September day, with the Campbell’s’ map in hand, I set off on a trek through the eastern portion of the basin. The night prior, I camped and enjoyed the night sky at the National Park boundary, allowing for an early start to take advantage of cooler temperatures in the morning hours.

I spent several hours wandering along the sandy shores of the ancient river bed, trying to utilize the eighty-year old map, but found that over the years the shore lines, and washes that the Campbell’s had meticulously mapped have been altered by erosion.

 

Lithic scatter and core piece.

Lithic scatter and core piece.

 

The shore lines are incredibly sandy. Like a beach with no water.

The shore lines are incredibly sandy. Like a beach with no water.

 

On the north shoreline I finally found a small cache of lithic scatters. Lithic scatters are essentially prehistoric garbage, the wasted flakes of stone from chipping arrowheads, spear points, knives and other stone tools. The lithic scatters were from an assortment of stone, mostly the same types that the Campbell’s had reporting finding in the 1930s. There was obsidian, jasper, rhyolite, and rock crystal. The hunk of rhyolite was likely a ‘core piece’, which would have been broken into smaller pieces then fashioned into tools.

Mid-day was soon upon me, and with it came the heat. The temperature quickly climbed above 110 degrees, and I was drenched in sweat. In the dry river bed there was a plethora of willow trees which made for the perfect place for an early afternoon cat nap.

The nap was essential, after 20-minutes I was back to combing the shore line for any traces of the long abandoned Pinto Basin People’s camps. I walked, and walked, and walked some more, I was now five miles into the basin, and hadn’t found any additional artifacts. Despite the inconsistencies with the map I knew that I was on the right path, having passed over several mapped camp sites. It is likely that any surface artifacts that had been there have been covered in a thick layer of sand.

 

Dozens of rock alignments. Unfortunately these aren't so easy to see in photographs.

Dozens of rock alignments. Unfortunately these aren’t so easy to see in photographs.

 

With the heat, and now a dwindling water supply it was time to head back. I worked my way over to the south shore. It was there where I came across an old ‘cowboy’ camp site, a rock ring with a few rusty cans half buried in the ground beside it. Nearby were dozens of interesting rock alignments, with stones placed an equal distance apart from each other. I had remembered reading in the Campbell’s paper about rock alignments and ancient hearths along the south shore. I indeed had just walked into the very camp that they had described. The rusty cans were likely from an old prospector that had hijacked an ancient hearth.

Rock alignments are tricky, as nobody knows what they mean or were used for. Some archaeologists speculate that alignments could have been star maps, or part of a game. Whatever their meaning, they would be one of my better discoveries that day.

Hiking back along the Eagle Mountains and the southern shore line, I soon found myself walking across a bed of cracked clay, and then lacustrine (lake-deposited) mudstones and siltstones. I looked down to find a fossilized rib bone. I took a few more steps, and there was another. A few more steps, and a third. The fossils appeared to be of varying age, one was very dark in color (probably the oldest), another a brownish/orange, and the last whitish/gray. The fossils found in the Pinto Basin have been attributed to miniature horses and camels from the Pleistocene Epoc.

 

Fossil beds in the Pinto Basin. Coxcomb Mountains in the background.

Fossil beds in the Pinto Basin. Coxcomb Mountains in the background.

 

Clay earth. Again, Coxcomb Mountain in the background.

Clay earth. Again, Coxcomb Mountain in the background.

 

Three fossilized rib bones of varying age.

Three fossilized rib bones of varying age.

 

I reached my vehicle in the late afternoon with just a few drops of water remaining in my bladders The idea of air conditioning and a cold beverage was exciting after a long day of humping along in the excessive heat.

At the time I felt that the expedition hadn’t turned up much, but after carefully dissecting the details I considering it a success. I was able to successfully identify two camp sites, one by the lithic scatters, and the other by the rock alignments and hearths. I had also with blind luck stumbled upon the fossil beds, and found three fossilized rib bones. In all, not a bad day.

 

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.