THE DESERT TORTOISE
AND EARLY PEOPLES OF THE WESTERN DESERTS
Desert tortoises (Gopherus [=Xerobates] agassizii) have been inhabitants of the Mojave and Colorado deserts of North America since Ice Age times.’ When people arrived on the scene, they interacted with tortoises in several ways: they noted their way of life, they found household and ritual uses for them, and they ate them. The past and present importance of desert tortoises to native peoples is reflected in the many archaeological sites that contain the physical remains of tortoises (bones and shell fragments), in native languages and oral traditions, and in media of artistic and symbolic expression.
THE IMPORTANCE OF DESERT TORTOISES TO EARLY PEOPLES
Archaeological, ethnographic, and historical data, gathered from many sources, have allowed a reconstruction of the ways that desert tortoises were important to the early peoples of the deserts. The archaeological record indicates that tortoises were used as early as 9,500 years ago2 and that their importance increased over time.3
The remains of desert tortoises that have been cooked and eaten have been identified at many archaeological sites in the desert West (Fig. 1); those sites include campsites on open landscapes, large roasting pits, inhabited caves and rockshelters, and residential structures.
According to a number of ethnographers and from information gathered from various historical documents, many desert-dwelling groups ate desert tortoises (Fig. 2). Some groups, however, especially those that lived along the Lower Colorado and Gila rivers, e.g., the Mohave, reportedly had an aversion to tortoise meat (see citation 3 below for specific information). Tortoise meat has been described as delicious and delicate in flavor, similar to chicken, but somewhat coarser in texture and with slightly fewer calories than chicken.4 Early Euroamerican miners and traders also reportedly enjoyed tortoise meat.5, 6 Tortoises were prepared in a variety of ways including roasting over fire or within roasting pits and boiled in stews (see citation 3, page 1, for more information).
Exactly how desert tortoises were found and captured during prehistoric times is not known. Our best historic account comes from a description of tortoise-hunting practices of the Seri Indians of northern mainland Mexico. Among the Seri, tortoises were sometimes lured out of burrows with water placed at the entrance to the burrows or were sometimes dragged out of their burrows with long hooks.7 Dogs were used to locate ranging tortoises and tortoise burrows.
It is likely that tortoises were taken at all seasons of the year. Tortoise burrows have a distinctive shape; when tortoises are within burrows, they can easily be seen and removed. Although tortoises are more active during the spring and summer than at other times, they occasionally leave their winter burrows when the weather is warm and moisture is available and could be taken then.
Tortoise shell was sometimes powdered and used to relieve stomach and urinary tract afflictions among the Yavapai.8
As Household Utensils
Tortoise shells were used for bowls, ladles, seed-parching containers, spoons for children, scoops for digging or removing soil, and pottery-making tools (see citation 3, page 1 for specific details). The bowl shape of the upper shell (carapace) made it an ideal container. The slight curvature and smoothness of carapace fragments made them useful for spoons, scoops, and smoothing tools.
As Ceremonial Items
Rattles made from tortoise or turtle shells were often used on ceremonial occasions. Although most commonly used in areas within the range of desert tortoises, the rattles were of great value and were traded to groups far beyond the range. The upper and lower shells usually were laced or otherwise fastened together, either stones or hard seeds were placed within the hollow interior, and openings were sealed, often with asphaltum. A number of fragmental specimens of rattles have been recovered from archaeological sites. One ethnographic Cahuilla specimen, probably made in the early part of the 20th century, is in the collections of the Palm Springs Desert Museum (Fig. 3).
A collection of animal bones from an archaeological site at Joshua Tree National Park, interpreted as that of the cremation of an important person sometime in the last 1,000 years, contained 36 burned tortoise scapulae (shoulder blades). The unusual occurrence suggests that the tortoise bones were strung as a necklace, used as gaming or divining pieces or used for other ornamental or ritual purposes.9
Ancient Mesoamerican texts (codices) and architectural decorative motifs show representations of tortoise or turtle shells used as ceremonial vessels, rattles, drums, and as ceremonial garb.
TORTOISES IN SYMBOLISM AND MYTH
The unique characteristics of tortoises, sharply contrasting with those of other animals–their physical form, long life, relatively slow pace of travel, and other behaviors–contributed to their symbolic importance. Tortoise or turtle motifs and themes in Native American design and oral tradition suggest that spiritual values and symbolic significance were attached to the animals.
Tortoise/turtle figures in Indian rock art are not common, but they do exist. A number of tortoise/turtle petroglyphs (pecked designs on rock) are present in the Valley of Fire, Nevada (Fig. 4), and at a number of other Mojave Desert archaeological sites in California and Nevada. The interpretations of these depictions is uncertain; they may represent the importance of capturing tortoises for food or may be mythological, clan, or personal symbols.10 Tortoise or turtle designs are also incorporated in basketry (front cover) and sometimes used as decorative motifs on pottery. One group of Southern Paiute fed tortoise, chuckwalla, and rabbit meat to young eagles, captured as hatchlings and raised specifically for ceremonial purposes.
Among the Chemehuevi, the “turtle” was a symbol of the spirit of the people and had an aura of sacredness. In one Chemehuevi myth, reported by ethnographer Carobeth Laird, “Turtle” accepted inevitable doom and died with great dignity. The animal expressed the Chemehuevi ideal: enduring patience, stamina for survival, and courage in hopeless situations.12 In Cahita Indian myth, the tortoise/turtle is portrayed as a semi-villain13; in Yavapai myth as a stranger (see citation 8, page 4, for details). A Mohave “song” tells the tale of an ancestral westward journey toward the Chemehuevi, a group that ate turtle.14 One Paiute coyote tale known as “Iron-Clothes” tells how the “land turtle” came to be used as food and how it was prepared and eaten.15
Tortoise/turtle symbolism in a wide range of cultures often incorporates themes such as long or eternal life, revered old age, and the tortoise/turtle shell as a foundation for or form of the earth in creation stories. For example, the Mayan calendrical system was sometimes represented as a segmented wheel, and tortoises or turtles, with their circular form and marginal scutes, were an obvious symbol of the passage of time in the world. Ritual self-inflicted bloodletting occurred at the end of certain Mayan time periods and turtle or tortoise, motif vessels are often depicted as being associated with this ritual.16, 17 Perhaps the importance of the tortoise/turtle as a symbol of the passage of time is the reason why the Mayan cosmology includes a constellation called the “turtle” (the same as we know as Orion, the hunter).18, 19
Desert tortoises were important, both economically and ideologically, to the early peoples of the western deserts. Tortoises were available over a wide area and on a year-round basis. Although eating tortoise was “taboo” in a few groups, those same groups incorporated tortoise/turtle symbols in their art and mythology. Desert tortoises, along with rabbits, hares, and bighorn sheep, contributed to the protein portions of the diets of the majority of the prehistoric peoples of the area. The shells of desert tortoises were suitable for many utilitarian purposes, both in the household and for special ceremonial occasions.
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1 Stebbins, R. C. 1966. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin.
2 Douglas, C. L., D. L. Jenkins, and C. N. Warren. 1988. Spatial and temporal variability in faunal remains from four Lake Mojave-Pinto Period sites in the Mojave Desert. Pp. 131-144 in: J. A. Willig, C. M. Aikens, and J. L. Fagan (eds.), Early Human Occupation in Far Western North America: the Clovis-Archaic Interface. Nevada State Museum Anthropological Papers No. 21.
3 Schneider, J. S. and G. D. Everson. 1989. The desert tortoise (Xerobates agassizii) in the prehistory of the southwestern Great Basin and adjacent areas. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 11(2):175-202.
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5 Fairchild, M. D. 1933. A trip to the Colorado mines in 1862. California Historical Society Quarterly 12:11-17.
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7 Felger, R., M. Moser, and E. W. Moser. 1981. The desert tortoise in Seri Indian culture. Pp. 113-120 in: K. A. Hashagen (ed.), Proceedings of the 1981 Desert Tortoise Council Symposium. Long Beach, California.
8 Gifford, E. W. 1936. The Northeastern and Western Yavapai. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 34(4).
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10 Green, E. M. 1987. A Cultural Ecological Approach to the Rock Art of Southern Nevada. Master’s Thesis, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
11 Kelly, I. T. Unpublished manuscript. Notebook of the Las Vegas Band, Southern Paige Field Notes. Berkeley: University of California Archives No. 138 2m. Anthropology Document 18 (UCARC microfilm CU 23.1, frames 18-24, 18-93).
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18 Lounsbury, F. 1982. Astronomical knowledge and its uses at Bonompak, Mexico. Pp. 143-168 in: A.F. Aveni (ed.), Archaeoastronomy in the New World. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
19 Freidel, D., L. Schele, and J. Parker. Maya Cosmos. Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. New York: William Morrow Co., Inc.