They arrived in the eastern Sierra Nevada about 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, moving into the mountains from the Great Basin as the climate warmed at the end of the last Ice Age. They included the Washoe, the Yakut, and the Paiute. An even greater population of native Americans inhabited and tended the warmer and moister western flank of the Sierra, among them the Nisenan. They tended the land by pruning and selective burning to increase the productivity of useful plants for food and basket weaving, and maintain open, park-like forests free of deadwood and underbrush.
The Nisenan inhabited the Great Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada Foothills west of Sacramento, including the area around my home here in Cool, and the town of Coloma, a few miles to the south. I've photographed the Nisenan bedrock mortars in Coloma several times, and keep coming back. Here Nisenan women prepared acorns by pounding and grinding them with stone pestles. The relatively homogeneous nature of granitic rock resulted in mortars that likely lasted for generations, as mothers took over their mother's places, while their children played in the meadow or the nearby river.
But lying in the gravels of that river, eroded from bedrock veins higher in the mountains, lay flakes and pebbles of gold. Winter storms, occasional doozers, would turn the river into a roiling, sediment-filled grinder that pried the metal from its home in the high mountains and swept it away to finally lie in the riverbed down in the foothills, gleaming innocently for many thousands of years, while the Nisenan, unaware of its "value", tended their lands sustainably for generation after generation. That all ended in 1848, when James Marshall walked out one morning, within sight of this spot, to inspect the race of a new sawmill being built for John Augustus Sutter, a gleam caught his eye, and the Gold Rush displacement of the Sierra Nevada natives began.