Native Americans and Desert Animals

"There is no trash dump in this town. Everything is thrown into the river."
mountain guide in Huaray, Peru
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Native Americans have always needed, respected, and depended on desert animals. The first native Americans came to North America across the land bridge from Asia following animals, which they relied on for food, clothing, and shelters. After the ice age, parts of North America were transformed into arid desert regions. By the time the first Europeans came by boat, close to 1/4 of a million Indians lived in the desert Southwest. Native Americans have always had a practical as well as a spiritual connection to the desert animals. Coexisting in harmony and dependency with animals demanded sound ecological practices. Native Americans knew that you couldn't over-hunt or over-kill. Today with more and more people living in the desert regions, the balance between desert dwellers and desert animals seems more and more out of balance. Today's desert dwellers do not rely on desert animals for food, tools, shelter, or clothing. Desert animals today are most often something to be controled or irraticated, not something to coexist with. Today we must take measures to insure the survival of desert animals as their environment shrinks due to human developnemt and human overuse and mismanagement.

Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis)
Bighorn sheep played an important part in early native American's lives. This is evident in the many depictions of bighorn sheep in ancient rock art. The bighorn sheep is seen in rock art more often than any other animal, and usually depicted as an animal being hunted. Native Americans seldem ate bighorn sheep meat, because bighorn were so difficult to catch and kill. It often took many days and many miles of wandering and following an animal until it was finally killed. Once caught and killed, almost all parts of the animal were used. About 3000 years ago, hunting bighorn became easier with the switch from the ataltl to the bow and arrow, allowing the hunter to hunt from any position, instead of just a standing position. Leg tendens of the bighorn were used in bow construction, helping in the bow's recoil. Horns and bones were used to form tools, utencils, and ornaments. The hide was used for clothing, footware, containers, and bindings.



Chuckwalla (Sauromelos osesus)
The chuckwalla is the largest non-poisonous lizard in the S W deserts. Ancient Indians used to eat chuckwallas. They would frighten the chuckwallas by whipping a long stick through the air. Chuckwallas evade preditors by hiding in rocks and inflating themselves so they cannot be extracted by preditors. Indians would take long sticks with hooks on the ends to extract them from cracks. They would " pop" the inflated lizards with a pointed stick, and then pull them out the the hook. Because chuckwallas have a low metabaolic rate, their meat would be good to eat raw for days after the kill. Sometimes the chuckwalla would be eaten raw, but mostly roasted between hot rocks on an open fire. The meat could also be dried and stored to be eaten later. The whole lizard was eaten, including meat, bones, and muscle. Not all native Indians would eat chuckwallas. The Havasupai believe that killing a chuckwalla would cause bad luck for themselves and their village.
Cottontails and Jackrabbits
Cottontails (Sylvilagus spp.) and Jackrabbits (Lepus spp.) were the most important source of meat for ancient native Americans. There were lots of rabbits avaliable and their population replentished itself rapidly. There were many ways to hunt rabbits. One technique was the rabbit drive, where the whole village would get in a large circle and walk to the middle, eventually catching all the rabbits in the circle. Snares, bow and arrow, throwing sticks, clubs, rocks, and the atlatl were also used to catch rabbits. The rabbit skins were used for blankets and clothing.







The Muledeer (Odocoileus hemionus) was hunted by early native Indians. This deer was not a major part of the Indian's diet, as these deer are scarce and hard to hunt down. When they were hunted, most all of the deer parts were used. These deer were rarely brought down with an arrow, and oftentimes the wounded animal would need to be tracked down for days and many miles before the kill. Some times the arrows were dipped in poisen made from blackwidow spiders, or rattlesnke venom, or rancid meat to help take down a wounded animal. Other ways to hunt down deer was to corral them into enclosed areas, or even foot snares. Deer meat was cooked and eaten or made into jerky for eating later on. The skins and bone had many uses. Complete hides were tacked up for shelters. The deerskin was used for clothing or moccasins. Deer bone is strong and light. The bones were used for tools, jewelry, and utensils.
You wouldn't think that ancient desert dwellers were much into fishing, but fish was part of many native's diet. Things weren't also as they are today. Rivers change course, lakes form and disapppear, and animal populations survive or disappear accordingly. Ancient Lake Chuhuilla used to be where the Salton Sea is today. The Colorado River has changed course over the centuries. Populations of desert pupfish have occupied various creeks and waterholes in the Mojave Desert , and still survive today in Death Valley. Fish were either caught with hooks or trapped in nets. Fish were cooked and eaten, or dried for later use, and even traded with tribes who didn't have access to fish.
Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
The desert environment is a tough environment for all living things, both plants and animals. Most anything that can be used as a food source was used as a food source by the native people. Oddly enough, the golden eagle was never killed for a food source. Sometimes eagles were captured live and kept in villages almost as pets. The were either lured to the ground with food and captured live as adults, or captured as babies and raised in villages to adulthood. Captured eagles were sometimes killed for religious purposes. Eagle feathers were valubale in trading with other tribes. Ancient Indians realized that eagles were precious and rare , and would only capture and kill a few, as to not endanger the species.
Ground Squirrels and Woodrats
Most Indian tribes used rodents as a food source. Though they are small, they are abundant and found throughout the desert. Some villages had rodents as their major source of meat. Most rodents are nocturnal, but ground squirrels are active during the day and thus easier to hunt. Woodrats make their homes above ground instead of burrows, which protected them from animal preditors, but not humans. Rodents could be smoked out of their burrows with fire and also caught with lassos or snares as they exit their burrows. Long sharp sticks could be used to extract rodents from burrows too. Various holes to fall into were constructed to trap rodents . A jar filled with water would lure a rodent, and the drowned rodents were then pulled from the jars. Crude "mouse-trap" type devices made with hair triggers and large stones would smash and kill rodents.
There are more insects than any other animals types on earth. Because of their small size, they have limited use to humans as a useable resource. Some years, under certain environmental conditions, there can be enough of a certain insect species to make it worthwhile to harvest them as a food source. In the springtime of a favorable year, there can be up to 1000 sphinx moth caterpillars per acre. These can b e collected and roasted and eaten or stored for a later food source. I have seen them everywhere some years, but mostly squished on the highways by the thousands. Grasshoppers can also appear sometimes in large enough numbers to be collected and eaten. Grasshoppers can be eaten in a soup, or crushed and make into a grasshopper paste and spread out and dried or roasted. Also eaten were the larve of flies that gather at the shores of salt lakes in great numbers. Today insects are not a part of modern Indian culture's food source, but in other cultures throughout the world, insects are still eaten and an excellent source of protein. Insects also don't have the dangerous parasites that are found in red meat or fish.



Although pronghorn no longer exist in the Mojave Desert, they once did and were hunted by ancient natives. Overhunting and loss of environment has driven them away and reduced their numbers throughtout the desert regions. Hunting the pronghorn was not an easy task. They are the fastest land animals in North America, and can run at speeds up to 55 m.p.h. The biggest problem was getting close enough for a good shot from the bow and arrow. That could usually only be done at the waterhole, especially with the males during breeding season, for they might stand their ground longer than usual. Pronghorn were also corraled into enclosed areas and then shot with arrows or clubbed to death. Group hunts were often led by a group leader who was usually the most skilled and experienced hunter. These group leaders were thought to have a spiritual connection to the animals hunted. Hunting group leaders often visited the herds, sang to them, and slept with the herd for several nights before the hunt. All parts of the pronhorn were used, for food, clothing, utensils, tools, or in making shelters.
Quail are difficult to hunt because of their speed on the ground and in the air. Indians liked to hunt them because they enjoyed the taste of the quail meat. The most common of the three different quails is the Gamble's quail. Quail hang out in coveys of up to two dozen individuals. Quail were also hunted often because they could be hunted close to the Indian villages and they were not dangerous to hunt. Because quail hang out in groups, individuals are not hunted, but a weapon was aimed at a group hoping one or two would be hit. Quail were hunted with a bow and arrow. The Serano Indains used a hunting stick that was similar to a boomerang to hunt quail. Tribes used nets and snares which could catch many birds at once. Some group hunts used nets which were up to 200 feet long. After the feathers were removed, quail were cooked on open fires or with hot stones. Although used mainly as a food source, the feathers were used by shamans in ceremonies and in ceremonal clothing and accessories. The quail is a character in many myths and legends in desert Indian cultures.
Rattlesnakes (Crotalus spp.)
Rattlesnakes are a symbol of our Southwest Deserts. There are 11 species of rattlesnake found in the deserts in North America. Some large individuals can grow up to 7 feet long and weigh up to 15 pounds. Rattlesnake meat is tasty and eaten boiled or roasted. Rattlesnakes play an interesting part in most Indian culture's myths and legends. The Hopi used rattlesnakes in their 9 day snake dance ceremony , which was performed to bring rain to the Hopi crops.
Roadrunner (Geococcyx califernianus)
Both modern peoples and ancient natives have been facinated by the roadrunner. Roadrunners are funny, quirky, and interesting birds. The roadrunner is a character found in most Indian group's myths , stories, and legends. Roadrunners fly so infrequently that for the Chahuilla Indians, a roadrunner in flight was taken as some special sign or omen. Roadrunners were caught and eaten, which wasn't an easy thing to do. Because they are preditors and higher on the food chain, they are not as common as other birds used as food sources.
The tortoise is the largest desert reptile, and can grow up to 15 inches and weigh up to 20 lbs. The desert tortoise was a food source for native Indians, and has been for thousands of years. In years of drought when larger animals were more scarse, the desert tortoise played an even more important role as a source of meat protein for native populations. Charred tortoise shells have been found in most ancient Indian villages , sites, which suggests that tortoise have been used as a food source for many years. Various primitive tools were used to obstract tortoise from their burrows underground, many being sticks with hooks on the ends of them. The hard tortoise shell has been used in a veriety of useful ways to native Americans. Spoon, bowls, rattles, shovels,and containers are some of the uses for their shell. The tortoise was also used for medicinal uses. The tortoise shell was crushed up into a powder and rubbed on the belly to help ease stomach pains. Crushed tortoise sheel powder mixed with boiled tortoise urine, was also thought to help urinary tract problems in humans.