California must have been an interesting place in pre-Columbian times. It was the most populated area on the continent and the most diverse ethnically and linguistically. There were nine language families in the Sierra alone.
Native Americans left us a record of their presence in the Donner Summit area: petroglyphs. The pictures to the right are Donner Summit area petroglyphs enhanced in black and white. Similar symbols are found in many places in the northern Sierra Nevada, usually on gently sloping granite slabs.
Although there are dozens of petroglyphs sites on Donner Summit the most accessible prehistoric rock art site is below Donner Pass on Old Hwy 40 between Rainbow Bridge and the Chinese Wall. Look first for the 20 Mile Museum sign about the petroglyphs just by the roadside and then for the monument on the flat granite bench just west of the road. This is an extensive petroglyph site that contains over 200 rock art elements, including a bear track (see top photo). The petroglyphs here are hard to see but fascinating.
Archeologists estimate that the petroglyphs in this area are between 1500 and 4000 years old. They were created by pecking through the surface of the glaciated bedrock using a tool called a hammerstone. Most are geometric shapes – wavy lines, circles, and zigzags. Human and animal forms, such as stick figures and deer or bear tracks, are less common. Although no one knows what the petroglyphs mean, many people believe they have a spiritual or ceremonial significance. They are so difficult and time consuming to make they must have had great significance for the Martis Culture.
The Martis were possibly ancestors of the Washo People of what is now Nevada and it is they who created these petroglyphs. Like all Great Basin Indians, they were nomadic. The Washo traveled all over the Sierra, and used Donner Pass as a corridor for travel to and from Lake Tahoe. Adapted to life in the Great Basin and the Sierra, they made annual rounds hunting game, gathering and trading food, clothing materials, salt and obsidian. They probably carried dried trout and pine nuts to eat and they would have hunted.
The Martis disappeared from Donner Summit about 500 A.D. No one knows absolutely where they went or why but just at that time the bow and arrow arrived in the Donner Summit area and with those must have come great disruption to the society. Native Americans were absent from Donner Summit for about 500 years until the Kings Beach Culture arrived to take up summer residence.
The rock art sites are exposed to the harsh environment of the high Sierra. The natural process of exfoliation (peeling away of layers of rock due to the freezing and expansion of water) is at work on Sierra granite. This leaves the petroglyphs fragile and vulnerable to destruction.
To preserve these sacred symbols:
Walk around, not on, the petroglyphs.
Don't make rubbings or tracings–this wears away the rock surface.
Leave rocks, plants and artifacts where they are.
And of course remove your trash.
Someday the petroglyphs will be gone and along with them will go the tangible record of the first visitors to Donner Summit. There are many good sources for information about the earliest visitors to Donner Summit as well as the rock carvings. A particularly good source is Ancient Rock Carvings of the Central Sierra by Willis Gortner. You have to be really lucky to see a copy since it's out of print - but you may run into someone with a copy. The book is also in the Truckee library. Gortner also wrote Martis Indians: Ancient Tribe of the Sierra Nevada.
Another source to look at is a PDF by the USFS, "Style 7 Rock Art and the Martis Complex."
You might also like to see our Donner Summit Native Americans brochure, page 1 and page 2
Then too, there are two versions of our 20 Mile Museum sign about the Petroglyphs. Version 1 (installed)
and version 2 (not installed)
Our Heirlooms have carried stories about Native Americans on Donner Summit (9/13 and 2/13) other petroglyph sites (6/15 and 8/15) and grinding rocks (mortars) in the 2/13 issue.
Check out also our petroglyph gallery
Finally, there is our Introduction to Summit Valley which has a section on the mortars and metates left behind by the Martis. This also comes in page 1 and page 2