The Lovelock Cave Decoys

In 1833, Captain B.L.E. Bonneville, an officer of the U.S. Army on furlough, fitted out an exploring expedition of 40 men, under the guidance of Joseph Walker, for the purpose of identifying beaver trapping opportunities between the Great Salt Lake in Utah to the Pacific Ocean, including the Humboldt Valley. These were the first explorers to cross this part of the continent, and they named rivers, mountains and lakes as lasting memorials to their adventurous lives. Trappers, hunters and adventurers seeking gold followed their lead, continuing to traverse the basin. Then came emigrants who sought the western coast as their home. Although Native populations probably continued to use parts of Lovelock Cave until 1929, most were slaughtered in the Humboldt Lake area by Walker’s expedition in 1833, which seemed to end their extensive use of the Humboldt Valley.

The Lovelock Cave, known over time as Bat Cave, Horseshoe Cave, Sunset Guano Cave and Indian Cave by the local settlers, drew little attention until 1911, when James Hart and David Pugh, two disillusioned gold miners from Lovelock, filed a mineral claim on the cave and mined guano deposits from that fall to the spring of 1912. They stripped a layer of guano from the cave approximately three to six feet deep, using a pick and shovel with little regard to the artifacts, and shipped some 250 tons to the Hawaiian Fertilizer Company in San Francisco. The extent of the damage will never be known, and only the largest and most eye-catching objects were kept as curious.

At the end of their mining operation, Hart and Pugh contacted the Paleontology Department at the University of California, telling them about the artifacts they turned up. That year the University sponsored an archeological expedition led by Liewellyn Loud. In his report on the excavation of the site, he noted, “The guano digging stopped in the cave when the miners reached a level in the cave where the tule rushes, broken baskets and refuse left by ancients formed such a large portion of deposit that the fertilizer could no longer by screened from it.” He reported salvaging “several thousand specimens” alone from the guano dump piled outside the cave.
In 1924 Mark Harrington, under the sponsorship of the Museum of the American Indian in New York City, led a more organized excavation at the site. He met with Loud, and with the held of several Northern Paiute laborers they began a serious and intense excavation of the cave. Although the previous mining activity, and haphazard digging by curio hunters, made a shambles of the cave’s deposit, several areas seemed only slightly disturbed. They marked off the most promising areas as numbered lots, carefully digging each to bedrock, finding about 40 pits and caches that revealed clues to the lifestyles of these prehistoric peoples.
As all primitive cultures, the peoples of this region made full use of the natural resources around them, particularly the local bulrush plants, commonly known as tule in the western part of the country. Tule, a marsh plant of the sedge family that grew along the shoreline of the lake, served the Native peoples of this region from birth to death. Split tule was woven into cradles and burial baskets, and used to make foot ware and hats. Its tender tuber roots were ground into a paste and used much like potatoes today. In springtime, women gathered the pollen, making a sweet candy treat. In the fall, women poled their clumsy rafts made of bundled tule rushes along the huge stands of grass and beat its seeds into their baskets, which were dried and ground into a course meal for flour. Tule rushes were woven into mats, pack baskets and pouches for food storage. Narrow strips from the surface of the leaves were twisted into long threads, used to fashion fine corded baskets, fishing line and nets for snaring small animals and birds. Some nets were so specialized that archeologists believe different nets were made to capture small game, fish or waterfowl.

At the front of the cave, in Pit #12, archeologists found what seemed to be a typically well-lined storage pit. It was pot-shaped, larger at the bottom than the top, with layers of tule matting and fragments of basketry at the bottom, like the other 40 some pits that had unearthed. At first it seemed to be an empty seed storage pit, yet what they saw at the bottom turned out to be a cleverly arranged tule mat that held the real treasure: 11 finely crafted woven canvasback decoys, bunches of feathers tied with tule string (presumable saved for future use on decoys) and two bundles of snares made of twigs and tule string.
The decoys, whose bodies were constructed of tule rushes bounded together with a twisted tule cord, were amazingly lifelike. Long rushes were bent over, forming a rounded bobtail, and bound together with two heavy cords, about four inches from the tail and another four inches down the body. The extra length was then trimmed. The decoy’s head was made from wrapped rushes, forming a likeness to a canvasback’s head and bill, which was attached into the cut end. Split tule rushes were bent over the joint to form the decoy’s breast. Eight of the canvasbacks had a reddish ochre coloring to the heads and blackening of the breast. Actual white canvasback feathers were attached to the bodies by sticking the quills under the twisted cords and securing them with thread. One of the decoys has a short string under the tail, which may have been used to attach small stones, either circled with grooves or with holes drilled through the center, as some were found bagged in another pit. In 1986, Dr. Donald Tuohy of the Nevada State Museum and Dr. Kyle Napton of the Institute of Archeological Research at the University of California used the latest method of dating antiquities, finding the decoys from Pit #12 to be 2160 years old (plus or minus 180 years), making them the earliest known examples of artificial waterfowl decoys
Goose decoy heads, probably used as stickups, were found in Lovelock Cave in 1912 and are now in the collection of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley, California. To make these decoys, the skulls were removed from the dead birds, leaving the feathers and bill intact. They were then stuffed with chewed tule leaves, reshaped, and mounted onto bound tule stalks. The lower mandible of the bill was tied into place by running a thread through the upper mandible nostrils and tying it. In some cases, enough of the birds skin was saved to stretch over a tule foundation, creating a floatable full-bodied decoy. Preserved prehistoric specimens of white-fronted, Canada and snow geese, as well as American mergansers, pintail, wigeon, brant, whistling swan and ring-necked ducks have been documented from this region.

But how did early Natives hunt ducks and geese, as shooting one with a bow and arrow would be a lucky chance at best. Even today’s hunters, with their high tech bows and arrows do not attempt to hunt waterfowl, especially canvasbacks that zip in and out of a decoy rig so fast that only a good gunshot can bag them. In an unpublished article by Nicholas Karas, he suggested another more plausible scenario.

Crouching low in the tule bulrushes, the hunter tensely waited the first flight of ducks to break the horizon. A flash of movement in the tall tule stand across the channel, barely detectable in the eerie, pre-dawn light, revealed that other waterfowlers had taken their places.Still dripping with water after setting out the decoys, one of the gunners vigorously rubbed his hands for warmth. Little patches of skim ice glistened in the protected coves this morning – a sure sign that the fall flights would soon be coming.

Suddenly, with a loud splash, one of the tall wooden sticks supporting an almost invisible net stretched above the reed decoys fell and brought down a section of the trap. From the other side, a dark figure slid quickly into the water and replaced the stick. Just as he finished his task in the bone-chilling waters, a shrill whistle of wings broke the morning stillness. Instinctively, the bird hunters crouched deeper into their cover.

Spotting the decoys the ducks wheeled in their flight. For a moment they were hidden by the majestic stands of tule that towered almost 15 feet above the water. Exploding into view at the head of the open channel, the ducks homed on the reed decoys. Approaching like arrows to a target, the canvasbacks cupped their wings to land. Abruptly, as if frozen in mid-air, they hit the netting over the decoys. Stragglers, bringing up the rear, tried to escape the net, but their flight path had been committed. They had come too far and bedlam broke loose as their piled upon each other. Thrashing frantically, the ducks became hopelessly entangled. On cur, the Indians scrambled to their feet and pulled down the netting. With practiced movements, the men grabbed each duck by the head, spun it quickly to break its neck and then threw it to a companion in the tall grass with a collecting basket. Within minutes the ducks were gathered and the net replaced for the next flight. The work was done quickly to take advantage of the half light of morning. Once the sun rose above the tule, the ducks would become more wary of the netting and harder to decoy.

After the morning flights had ended, the men took down their precious netting and loaded it into reed baskets; needed repairs would be made by the women of the village before it could be used again. The Indians would then pole their clumsy tule raft through the many intricate channels leading to the familiar high bluff along the lake and their village.

There is a good chance that similar hunts took place many times, not only by these hunters but their predecessors and contemporaries as well. But none left behind such remarkable prehistoric artifacts, as did these natives of the Lovelock Cave over 2000 years ago.

Take a Virtual Reality Tour of the Lovelock cave and Tule canvasback decoy courtesy of Howard Goldbaum(Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism MS 310, University of Nevada, Reno, NV 89557-0040)