Martis Indians:
Ancient Tribe of the Sierra Nevada

Willis Gortner, 1986 Portola Press 145 pages

The Martis Indians s a short (145 pages) scholarly work, listing many sources, by an amateur archeologist into this Ancient Tribe of the Sierra Nevada.   This book is out of print, as is Mr. Gortner’s other book, Ancient Rock Carvings, about Donner Summit petroglyphs.  The Martis are the people who made the petroglyphs and the many Donner Summit mortars and metates (see The Heirloom, February, 2013).  This companion book explains who produced the rock art.

There is not a wealth of sources about Donner Summit’s ancient Native Americans so we have to rely on these out of print books.  You can obtain this book on the internet as well as in a number of libraries after an internet search.  Locally, the Truckee library has two copies, one which can be checked out, and the other, which is in reference.   The Foley Library in Nevada City also has a copy.  None of the Placer County libraries has copies but a number of university libraries have copies. 

The Martis arrived on the scene about 2,000 B.C. taking advantage of the change in climate that had occurred.  The climate was cooler and there was more rain.  Lake Tahoe had filled and was overflowing down the Truckee River to Pyramid Lake in Nevada.    There was more food and a greater variety of food. 

The Martis lasted until about 500 A.D. when the climate became drier. Maybe more importantly, simultaneously, the bow and arrow was developed by the area’s Native Americans.  The new weapon had more power, greater accuracy, and greater range.  It must have changed hunting methods and the kinds food that could be acquired.  It may have changed culture.  Maybe new prayers were needed.  New skills were needed.  Maybe values changed.  For example, the Martis had worked almost exclusively with basalt to craft tools and projectile points.  Basalt cannot be crafted into the finer and lighter points needed on arrows so with the change to bows and arrows, chert and obsidian were valued.  Those are not available on the Sierra Crest though.  The nearest source of obsidian is the Tuolomne area near Yosemite, which necessitated trade or moving.  The Martis had not done much trading prior to their disappearance, although they did trade for shells with California Indians.

The book describes the Martis Culture during the 2,000 years of their existence and covers: climate, description, possible ancestors, tools, petroglyphs, neighbors, culture, religion, family structure, housing, food, summer and winter camps, utensils, basketry, language, and social organization.  Gortner hypothesized about some of those categories based on other groups’ cultural behaviors but the information based on analysis of camping sites, tools, artifacts, and  carbon dating, for example describing the changes in population and the changes in projectile points, is more sure.  Through that study we can know that the Martis occupied both sides of the Central Sierra Crest, moving to the higher elevations in summer and back to the foothills in winter.  The books cover shows a map of Martis lands.

The Martis Culture is described as distinctive by the use of basalt and little obsidian; large heavy projectile points that are poorly chipped and variable in form; use of manos ( smooth oval rocks used on metates to grind seeds into flour); metates (large grinding slicks – for pictures of both see The Heirloom, February, 2013); boatstones (weights used to improve spear throwing using atlatls); hunting and seed gathering; basalt scrapers; no use of ceremonial objects; and flaked drills and awls.  The culture was only discovered relatively recently, by R. F. Heizer and A. B. Elsasser, two California Indian scholars from U.C., while building a cabin at South Lake Tahoe in 1953.

An intriguing question arises in studying the Martis.  Where exactly did they go and what became of them after 500 A.D.?   That is just at the time that the bow and arrow came into use and when climate changed again.  No other tribe immediately replaced the Martis.  The Kings Beach Culture did not appear for another 500 years in some of what had been the Martis lands, for example.

No one knows what happened but Gortner did hypothesize.  Some new Native Americans appeared in the Yosemite area just about the same time and their projectile points resemble the Martis’.   Perhaps the Martis moved to Yosemite where the climate and game were better?  Maybe they moved closer to the obsidian they would now need for their arrows?  Yosemite is only 70-100 miles or so from the area the Martis used to inhabit.

For us, interested in Donner Summit, the Martis are interesting. They were the first inhabitants.  They left behind many hundreds of petroglyphs in many areas using a distinct Central Sierran abstract non-representational style, and they left many mortars, metates, and cupules (pecked irregular depressions in rock with perhaps mystical significance - see The Heirloom February, 2013).

Another salient question is who were the descendants of the Martis in the area?  A first thought would be the Washo which is what many people think, but there was a big time gap and differences between the cultures that Gortner thinks makes it improbable.  The Washo are a desert people who never occupied the higher Sierra elevations. Maybe Gortner’s title should have been “Martis Indians: Mysterious Tribe of the Sierra Nevada.”

Another source to look at is a PDF by the USFS, "Style 7 Rock Art and the Martis Complex."

What Did They Eat?

I went looking for Gortner’s book after rereading Ancient Rock Carvings… because we’d discovered the wealth of mortars and metates in Summit Valley during the summer of 2012.  It looked like the Land Trust and others would be successful in acquiring the valley and it would be open to the public.  We thought it would be good for the public to know what was there.  Here you may want to pick up “Introduction to Summit Valley” a large free brochure describing the valley.  It’s available at fine establishments on Donner Summit and on the “brochure” page of On the same page is a brochure called "The Native Americans of Donner Summit."

As we discovered more and more mortars and metates, along with other artifacts, the question that was obvious was, just what foods were prepared using these food preparation tools?  The Martis…  describes food sources well.

Acorns were  a staple food of the Martis but since there are not acorns at the higher elevations, they had to be transported.    Acorns have tannins and some toxicity that need removing and that was done by soaking them or washing the meal with water. 

The Martis also harvested pine nuts which came from pine cones as well as many other nuts and seeds.   Nuts and seeds were ground into flour and then made into a gruel.  Acorn meal was roasted or baked into tortilla type breads or made into mush using boiling stones.

All kinds of game were consumed by the Martis from small to large. 

Besides seeds and game they ate tubers, bulbs, fruits, berries, grubs, larvae, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and other insects. Interestingly, sugar pine sap was harvested for eating and seasoning.  All of those foods could have ended up in the mortars for pounding in preparation to eating.  Given that the mortars are some inches deep and that granite is one of the hardest rocks in the world,  there must have been a lot of grinding and pounding, year after year, generation after generation.


Martis houses were semi subterranean shallow pits 7-15 feet in diameter with conical covers.  The larger houses may have had supporting poles.  They were covered with brush, hides, or bark.