I recently had the opportunity to visit a place I had wanted to see for years. Twenty miles off the beaten path (if Lovelock, Nevada can be considered the beaten path), lies an opening to a small cave that held secrets of how native people lived alongside the prehistoric wetlands of Northern Nevada.
Lovelock, Nevada does not often make the headlines. The local population includes a Mr. O.J. Simpson, who is incarcerated in the local state prison. In the late 1800’s it was also the childhood home of Edna Purviance, leading lady in many a Charlie Chaplin film.
The cave is located on an unremarkable rocky outcrop and is about 150 feet deep and 35 feet wide. The first values recognized in this cave were the large deposits of bat guano that were mined starting in 1911. The minors frequently ran into native American artifacts but these were discarded or collected randomly. An archaeologist named L.L. Loud from the University of California, Berkeley began excavations in 1912. He collected several items but a comprehensive survey of the artifacts was not put together.
Then in 1924, a second effort was initiated by Mr. Loud. This time, the remainder of the guano was excavated and the cave floor was explored extensively. In a pit under mats made of tule a cache of eight painted and feathered decoys and three unfinished decoys, all made of tule, were discovered.
These decoys were carbon dated and determined to be approximately 2,250 years old (plus or minus 230 years). They were shaped to resemble canvasbacks, a diving duck that still breeds in remaining Great Basin wetlands. Tules were shaped to approximate the canvasback body form and feathers were attached to the body to further imitate the live bird.
Along with the decoys were a prehistoric sling, baskets, and other food storage items. These people used these decoys to hunt waterfowl on a remnant lake descended from Lake Lahontan. Approximately 12,500 years ago, this Pleistocene era lake had a surface area of approximately 8,500 acres. By 9,000 years ago, Lake Lahontan had broken up into a series of smaller lakes, one of which was the Humboldt Sink, which existed adjacent to Lovelock Cave. Some of this lake bed is managed as the Humboldt Wildlife Management Area by the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
The cave was probably used seasonally when the wetlands were flooded and attracted flocks of waterfowl. The decoys were stashed in the cave each year for future use. For whatever reason, one year the hunters never came back.
The ancient decoys were honored by the State of Nevada when Larry Hayden’s painting of the canvasback tule decoy was chosen as the first Nevada duck stamp in 1979.
These decoys were again featured on the 1999 Nevada Duck Stamp in a painting by Sherrie Russell Meline. A matted print of this painting has been hanging in our home for many years.
During my days at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, we taught kids about how native people lived around wetlands. One of the educational activities employed was the building of tule decoys. This was always an enjoyable activity for me to participate in.
Lovelock Cave is not an easy place to get to, but if you ever have the opportunity to explore northern Nevada seek it out, enjoy the solitude and think about the thriving wetlands full of waterfowl and how ingenious Paiutes enticed those birds within range of their arrows.