By Sandra Lynch

Imagine what it would be like in a natural world, a world where your pantry was filled with wild seeds, wild animals and stone. In this pantry was everything you needed to live, if you had the resourcefulness to use it. Your livelihood depended on your skills to know the right plants to seek for calories and vitamins. If you were wily enough to trap and kill a few animals, you could get protein and fat to sustain your life.

It was a time when your cookbooks were recorded in the memories and poetry of your mothers and fathers. That was the pantry of Yavapai County before there was a written history. 

About five years ago, a former teacher showed me a book she was using in her Northern Arizona University classroom about contemporary United States Indians. The book, Native Americans, was published by an international tourism company, and began by describing the First Americans, the world of the Paleo-Indian. The first paragraph concluded: "They were simple people, really." That phrase, "simple people," brought me up short. What was the writer's experience who had coined that turn of words? Had he ever gone hunting? Had he ever tracked a bull elk into a remote canyon, put a bullet into it, and then had to track it another two miles through underbrush and rock to find where the animal had finally bled to death? Had he packed down that steep canyon with his block and tackle to hang the six-hundred-pound beast? 

Modern hunters come equipped with high-powered rifles, four-wheel drives, and gear that included steel knives, nylon rope and nylon packs. How difficult it must have been if the hunter had only stone to use for weapons and butchering tools, grass twine for rope and human muscle for transportation. Paleo-Indians were "simple people, really"...simply wonderful! 

Partner to that hunter was a woman, equally as ingenious with stone tools as her mate. Women specialized in gathering food for the family's pantry. A woman's success as a gatherer determined whether or not a family would survive. Hunting has always been a tenuous strategy for survival. Science tells us that among the world's remaining hunter-gatherers, some still endure as in Africa's Kalahari bushmen, women alone provided seventy-five percent of the necessary calories for life. 

As the family-based bands moved across the landscape, women moved burdened down with carrying packs. On her back hung the makings of the family's home and belongings. Frequently, she supported an infant on her hip. Her eves never left the ground or thickets. Constantly she sought the seed plants, nut trees and berry bushes looking for food. With her free hand she reached for precious food packets. At temporary camps, she would scourge the area setting small animal traps to capture rodents. She lifted logs to find fat-bearing larva. 

The woman would then take her pickings to the home camp where she had left a possession prized beyond emeralds or gold...the milling stone. The milling stone was her Cuisinart to which she applied her mother's age-old recipes. Seeds and nuts were pounded or ground into powdery meal to which was added the tiny bodies of wood rats or a handful of fat-enriching termites or an occasional grasshopper. She would grind and kneed the ingredients into a gruel that sometimes was heated, sometimes not, becoming a porridge for a toothless child, or a toothless parent entrusted to her care. The milling stone insured that every hard-bought ounce of nutrient would not be wasted. 

Milling stones may have been family heirlooms, part of a woman's dowry brought to a marriage. The stones came in a variety of shapes, sizes and uses. Some stones were small enough to be packed inside the woven burden baskets, others were too large, and either cached in rock shelters or left open on the ground in camp grounds frequented seasonally as the bands exploited their territories. Farming societies fashioned large, ridge-lined platforms into troughs. A woman could kneel using a two-handed stone to grind corn as fine as baby powder. Hunter-gatherers used basin-like milling stones with rounded hand stones to chop food first, then grind it using circular motions. California Indians fashioned stones into mortar and pestle shapes that reduced tough oak acorns to a mealy paste that present day Cahuilla call wui-wish. 

Prescott's renowned archaeologist Robert Eular accompanied another great archaeologist, Henry Dobyns, into Walapai and Havasupai country to observe and photograph how milling stones were once used. Their work was printed in 1983 by the New Mexico Archaeological Society. They watched as women pounded pinyon nuts, jackrabbit meat, yucca, agave and prickly pear cactus fruit. "With soft foods, " they wrote, "the reduced pulp is given a final swirl or two with a circular motion of the mano. In short, this is less a grinding than a pulping." 

At the time Euler and Dobyns were writing, Pai communities still used these kitchen implements. "We know of slabs so cared for that they have been used in the same family for upwards of half a century," wrote Euler and Dobyns. "Seeking specimens for museum deposit, we found them difficult to obtain. Whole stones were in use, and no one wished to go to sandstone deposits for slabs suitable for shaping new ones, a task reputedly requiring an hour." 

Many bands did not have such easy access to rock they could convert into milling stones. Joan Schneider, an archaeologist from Riverside, California, reported finding a milling stone quarry in Wellton, Arizona, on the lower Gila River. Here against a volcanic basalt flow, early peoples had slabbed off perfect matataes. Thinkably, native bands would plan to swing by the quarry seasonally to replace their kitchen culinary. 

Up until ten years ago, archaeologists overlooked the wonder of millings stones. There was an obvious reason for this: archaeology was a man's vocation. When schools began to fill up with women students, a new dimension emerged as women studied women's prehistoric roles. Today archaeologists probe the surfaces of milling stones with sophisticated technology. DNA tests have revealed a great deal of information about the diet of early folks. What science tells us now will rewrite the guidebooks. Simple people? Not really. The first residents of Yavapai County adapted to the environment in ways we cannot begin to duplicate. 

Sandy Lynch is Curator of Anthropology for Sharlot Hall Museum.

Illustrating image

Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (iny2133p)
Reuse only by permission.

The original photo accompanying this article is not available. However, the above photo readily shows that the life of the early Arizona residents was anything but "simple". The men 'hunters' and the women 'gatherers' had their hands full just to sustain day to day life for their families. The old milling stones (monos and matataes) and hand-crafted basketry are still treasures today. This photo of an Apache camp in 1889 is typical of Arizona Apache and Yavapai camps of that era. Can you find the milling stones? There is one to the right of the water jug basket and basket bowl in the center of the photo and another on the far right near the woman's bare foot.