Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park

Life in Death Valley: The Timbisha Shoshone

January 24, 2011, 11:30 am

Death Valley. The name evokes a bleached and desiccated ox skull on a vast alkaline flat, a desert night snake hiding in the cool shade of its cranial vault. The name whispers of parched Gold Rushers killing their pack animals for food, of ferocious winds and murderous heat.

Death Valley, a place of cursed extremes.

Before the area was given its grim moniker, however, it was home to the Timbisha Shoshone, ancestors of the Panamint, part of the Uto-Aztecan family, who moved into the region over 1,000 years ago. For them, this was no Death Valley—it was an 11-million acre grocery store with everything they needed to survive, so long as they worked hard, and were very, very smart.

It is, however—and was—the hottest, driest, and lowest place in North America. If you were to measure the vertical drop from the highest mountain in Death Valley, the 11,049 foot Telescope Peak, to Badwater Basin, you’d find that it’s twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. This is a place that has had 154 straight days of temperatures above 100 degrees (summer of 2001) and 40 consecutive days over 120 (1996). On July 15th, 1972, the temperature at Furnace Creek was 201 degrees.

Why is it so dry and so hot? The dearth of moisture can be blamed on the four major mountain ranges that lie between the valley and the Pacific Ocean. These natural barriers are moisture-robbers, sucking the passing clouds dry so that by the time they arrive in the valley, they’re often nothing more than dry “rain-shadows.” The intense heat is due to the valley’s depth and shape. At 282 feet below sea level, walled in by high, steep mountains, the heat flourishes in the clear and dry air, with little plant cover to offer cooling shadows. Heat bakes the desert surface, and radiates back up from the soil and rocks, and gets trapped in the valley. Summer nights are a cool 90 degrees, so as the heat rises, it gets trapped by the mountain walls, and gets cooled and recycled back down to the valley floor in pockets of descending air. These pockets are compressed and reheated by the pressure of the low elevation, becoming super-hot masses of moving air that sweep through the valley, creating those extreme temperatures.

So when—and how—did the Timbisha Shoshone not only live here, but flourish? Linguistic evidence indicates that the Panamint moved to Death Valley in 900 AD. They survived by coaxing the very specific bounty that existed in and around the valley, and by being ruthlessly logical; when it got too hot, they moved to cooler country. They had to plan seasons ahead, managing a terrain that the gold seekers and borax miners of the mid 19th century found so deadly they change its name from its Indian moniker of Tümpisa, which means “rock paint,” referring to the clay in the valley that they made into red ochre paint.