Fremont Culture

Late Prehistoric Farmers of the Great Basin

Fremont Figurines from Pilling Collection
Fremont Figurines from Pilling Collection, on display at College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum. Markarian421

The Fremont people (called more generally Fremont or Fremont culture) refers to a farming culture that lived in the high sagebrush and pinyon region of the eastern Great Basin and the western Colorado Plateau of the southwestern United States, including portions of Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. The artifacts and cultural lifestyle of the Fremont existed from ~1400 and 600 cal BP (~AD 600-1400); archaeological investigations suggest that climate change put an end to the culture.

Subsistence

Fremont farmers lived on a mixed subsistence, growing maize, beans and squash (a combination called the Three Sisters), and supplementing that with hunting and gathering of animals and plants. Wild foods known to have been used by Fremont culture people include mountain sheep, deer and antelope; small game like jackrabbits and hares; and wild plants including pine nuts.

Village Life

The Fremont people built extensive villages of 10 to up to 100 pithouses or more: pithouses are essentially small round dwellings dug partially into the ground, and built up with timber and mud. It is likely, however, that not all of the pithouses would have been in use at once. Pithouses are not permanent residences; after ten years or so, you need to abandon your pithouse and build another. What today look like enormous villages might have represented a handful of families living in the same place for several decades.

Villages near stream sheds had agricultural fields that were irrigated with excavated ditches. Smaller outlier groups of two or three pithouses (called rancherias) probably served as field houses, stopping points for hunter-gatherers away from home.

For storing grain, the Fremont built communal, rectangular, free-standing, above-ground structures out of adobe brick called granaries.

Granaries could be as large as five meters (15 feet) long and hold several cubic meters of grain. Some granaries were built in the middle of villages for communal use; others were placed in hard-to-reach places, in caves and rockshelters or on canyon walls. Archaeologists believe that storing grain in these locations, accessed by ladders or feats of rock-climbing, are evidence that there was competition for stored grain.

Art and Material Culture

Fremont pottery was primarily a gray-pasted ware, sometimes painted with elaborate geometric designs. They made baskets and worked leather, and made polished stone balls and human figurines made of fired clay. The Fremont also made distinctive small triangular notched and projectile points as arrow tips for use with the bow and arrow. Metate slabs and grinding stones were used to grind maize.

The Fremont culture is perhaps best known for their rock art, petroglyphs which have been pecked or painted or both into canyon walls. Many of the images are of rhomboid-bodied, broad-shouldered humans wearing elaborate necklaces, earrings and head dresses. Fired clay human figurines such as those in the Pilling Collection are similarly decorated.

End of the Fremont People

The reason for the disappearance of the Fremont culture is debated in archaeological circles.

There definitely was a drought associated with the "Medieval Little Ice Age" (1300-1800), when the climate in the Great Basin became significantly colder and drier, severely impacting the feasibility of farming. Rainfall became less predictable, and most annual moisture came in storms over the winter, rather than during the growing seasons.

At the same time, there is an indication that the Fremont population had grown, leading some researchers to point to a population pressure/climate change scenario as a factor. Competition for the Great Basin region was created by the in-migration of Numic speakers (Shoshones, Utes, Paiutes), who practiced a broad-based hunting and gathering strategy better adapted to the newly arid conditions.

Fremont Culture Sites

Utah: Danger Cave, Cowboy Cave, Big Village, Median Village, Evans Mound, Nawthis Village, Icicle Bench, Lott's Farm, Snake Rock, Huntington Canyon, Caldwell Village, Range Creek Nevada: Pahranagat Valley, O'Malley Shelter, Scorpion Ridge, Steptoe Valley, Amy's Shelter Colorado: Mantle's Cave, Texas Overlook, Sky Aerie, Tamarron

Sources

Barlow, K.

R. 2002 Predicting Maize Agriculture among the Fremont: An Economic Comparison of Farming and Foraging in the American Southwest. American Antiquity 67(1):65-88.

Coltrain, Joan B. and Steven W. Leavitt 2002 Climate and Diet in Fremont Prehistory: Economic Variability and Abandonment of Maize Agriculture in the Great Salt Lake Basin. American Antiquity 67(3):453-485.

Hildebrandt, William R. and Kelly R. McGuire 2008 America, North: Great Basin. Pp. 290-300 in Encyclopedia of Archaeology, edited by Deborah M. Pearsall. Elsevier, London.

Janetski, Joel C. 2002 Trade in Fremont society: contexts and contrasts. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 21(3):334-370.

Janetski, Joel C. 1997 Fremont Hunting and Resource Intensification in the Eastern Great Basin. Journal of Archaeological Science 24(12):1075-1088.

Madsen, David B. and Steven R. Simms 1998 The Fremont complex: A behavioral perspective. Journal of World Prehistory 12(3):255-336.

Simms, Steven R. 2008. The Fremont. Chapter 5 (pp. 185-228) in Ancient Peoples of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau. Left Coast Press: Walnut Creek, California.

Metcalfe, Duncan and Lisa V. Larrabee 1985 Fremont Irrigation: Evidence from Gooseberry Valley, Central Utah. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 7(2):244-254. Free download

Ugan, A. 2005 Climate, bone density, and resource depression: What is driving variation in large and small game in Fremont archaeofaunas? Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 24(3):227-251.