Western Snake River Prehistory

Daniel S. Meatte

(taken from the Prehistory of the Western Snake River Basin (1990) pp.63-70)



While traversing the Snake River Plain in the early 1800s, fur traders and early explorers observed and documented the existence of two major trading centers in the study area. The first was in the vicinity of Camas Prairie, near Fairfield, Idaho, and the second was along the lower reaches of the Weiser and Payette rivers on the Idaho-Oregon border. Later ethnographic surveys confirmed the presence of these trade centers and provided more detailed accounts of the type of goods traded, the nature of the trading activities, and the cultural affiliations of those people present (Liljeblad 1957; Murphy and Murphy 1960; Steward 1938, 1941; Stewart 1941).

Much of what we know about the regional trade and exchange systems is restricted to information extracted from these historical narratives and a few ethnographic surveys. This information indicates the Weiser area and Camas Prairie trade centers were successfully articulated with other regional trade centers (Griswold 1954; Hughes and Brennyhoff 1986; Walker 1967) that together operated as a "continental network" (Wood 1972:155). The Weiser area and Camas Prairie centers served as geographic focal points where foodstuffs, raw materials, manufactured goods, and environmental information could be exchanged (Liljeblad 1957). Further, they provided a social forum for gambling, dancing, intermarriages, social intercourse, and affirmation of social ties (Liljeblad 1957; Wood 1972).

Archaeologists have recently begun to document the antiquity of these trade centers, establishing that one of these centers, the Weiser area, operated as early as 4,500 years B.P. (Pavesic 1985). The use of x-ray diffraction to identify volcanic glasses, such as obsidian and ignimbrite, indicates the routes and the spatial extent of these exchange systems (McDonald 1985, 1986; Sappington 1981a, 1981b, 1984). A "Blue Mountain north-south trade axis" transmitted obsidian from Timber Butte in southeastern Idaho as far north as the Clearwater River and to the Pacific Coast, via the Columbia Plateau, while Ollivella shell beads were traded southward to the Weiser area (Pavesic 1985:82).

Available archaeological evidence clearly demonstrates a temporal co-occurance of these trade centers with regional developments of sedentism, increasing social complexity, and the use of cemeteries in the study area (Pavesic 1985:81-82). Just how and why these changes manifested themselves is not clear.

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