Yokuts and Western Mono Pottery

Susan M. Hector and Michael P. Sampson

Center for Research in Traditional Culture of the Americas ©2019

#082-190-5903 State Indian Museum, Sacramento, California


This brief summary provides the results of a study focused on a coiled pottery making tradition that was practiced by the Foothill Yokuts and Western Mono (also referred to as the Monache) people of the western Sierra Nevada foothills (Gayton 1929, 1948; Hewes 1941: 130-131; Spier 1978).  All of the Western Mono tribelets, except for the Northfork Mono, apparently made and used pottery. Foothill Yokuts tribelets on the Kings River and those living south of this river made pottery, although Yokuts groups living around Tulare Lake did not make or use ceramic vessels. (Gayton 1929:Fig. 3; Gifford 1932:25; Spier 1978:430). This craft was ultimately derived by these groups from the Owens Valley Paiute, a group linguistically and culturally related to the Western Mono (Steward 1933:235, 237). The full report on the project is posted on Academia.edu on the senior author’s page.

Previous Studies of Yokuts and Western Mono Pottery

The earliest studies of Yokuts and Western Mono pottery were conducted by U.C. Berkeley anthropologists, including Samuel A. Barrett, A. L. Kroeber, Thomas T. Waterman, and Anna H. Gayton.  Ceramic vessels and other objects collected during this ethnographic fieldwork and are now housed at the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley (PAHMA), along with related field notes.  Only Gayton (1929) published a report, based upon her 1925-1927 ethnographic fieldwork and a summary of the collections made by the other UC Berkeley researchers.

Gayton (1929:247) described a general typology for the vessel forms, based on the 34 specimens she examined: round bottom bowls with curved sides; flat-bottomed, short oval bowls; and flat-bottomed “bell-shaped” bowls. The vessel makers listed the uses of three pot sizes: small bowls used as dippers; medium bowls used to hold food and for soaking basket materials; and large cooking vessels. There were not separate names for these uses, but all vessels were called ki’wic by the Yokuts and wina’bi by the Western Mono. These are the native words for clay.

Pottery Analysis

Sixty-nine extant Yokuts and Western Mono pottery vessels have now been identified by our research at the PAHMA, California State Indian Museum (SIM), the Field Museum in Chicago, and Sequoia National Park. Most were collected or made in the early twentieth century. Fifty-three vessels were identified from photographs or museum records only. Twelve of these have no photographs or are incomplete vessels, preventing identification of vessel type. Sixteen vessels were analyzed at the SIM. In summary, fifty-seven vessels, excluding those without photographs or incomplete vessels, were classified: 16 at SIM and 41 in other collections. Details on these vessels are provided in two tables included in the full report on the research.

Since no typology exists for Yokuts or Western Mono pottery, we developed the following criteria based on our observations and research. These are illustrated in Figure 1.

Type 1. Base and maximum opening diameter are 1.5 – 2 times less than height

Type 2. Parallel sides

Type 3. Rounded or curved sides and base

Type 4. Base and maximum opening diameter are equal to or greater than height.

Type 5. Oval, may have pedestal base

Type 6. Bottle-shaped with shoulder and neck

Figure 1. Illustration of Yokuts/Western Mono Pottery Types (illustration by Susan Hector)

Any of the types may have two tabular handles near the top. These may be broken off and leave only a scar showing the original clay surface of the pot before treatment and use. The handles could have been helpful in lifting the vessels from the firing pit and cooking fire.

The six vessel types were used in the following tasks and are consistent with ethnographic descriptions of function (Gayton 1929:247):

Type 1                        Cooking                      13

Type 2                        Cooking                      5

Type 3                        Container                   15

Type 4                        Cooking                      18

Type 5                        Container                   5

Type 6                        Container                   1

Total                                                   57

Certain vessels included in our study had been made as examples by Jane Waley, a Western Mono informant, and never used, and therefore their condition cannot be interpreted for function. Based on observations of condition of the remaining vessels and Gayton’s comments, functions were assigned to the types. Type 3, a rounded bowl used as a container, varied greatly in size, perhaps representing the variety in function from dipper to basketry material soaking bowl. The remaining types exhibited a similar size to one another. Only one Type 6 container was observed and it is in the SIM collection.

SIM Collection

In April, 2018, we were able to conduct an analysis in person of 16 Yokuts pottery vessels curated at the California State Indian Museum (SIM), located in Sacramento. The work was coordinated by Nancy Jenner, Curator, SIM, and we were supported by her staff members Pepper Youngs, Nikola Sanguinetti, Edgar Huerta, and Ursula Filice. Attributes were recorded on a standardized form we developed after completion of earlier research of whole ceramic vessels (Hector et al. 2017). The attributes measured consisted of:


Maximum circumference

Opening circumference

Surface treatment

Surface treatment location (rim, neck, base, interior)


Rim shape

Neck shape


Fire cloud location (rim, neck, body, base, responsible for vessel damage)

Charring location (rim, neck, body, base, interior)

All the vessels had wipe marks on the interior, as expected since the coiling method used by the Yokuts consisted of scraping or wiping the vessels to join the coils. All vessels were made from residual clays which were a red color when fired.

It was not possible to determine whether steatite dust or acorn mush had been rubbed into the exterior of the pots we examined at SIM, a practice recorded by Gayton (1929:243, 245).  Some of the pots’ exteriors fluoresced green under UV light, indicating the presence of plant residue (cf. Odegaard 2009). This evidence likely represents treatment prior to firing.

Photographs were taken of the SIM vessels, along with accompanying comments. This information has been provided to the California State Indian Museum staff and is not provided in this online summary version of our study.


The sixty-nine Foothill Yokuts and Western Mono ceramic vessels identified as a result of our research were consistently made by coiling residual clays, and the coils were scraped together on the inside and outside to join them. Some had very smooth exteriors and others retained the irregular surface of coil manufacturing. Firing appeared to be at high temperatures, oxidizing the clays to a red color. Fire clouds are present but do not impair the condition of the pot. Certain pots we examined showed evidence that plant materials were applied to the exterior, a practice described in ethnographic accounts.

Most of the vessels that could be visually inspected (56 of 57) had flat bottoms. Rims were mostly flattened and irregular. Only one of the vessels had a neck, and it was a storage jar with traces of adhesive around the neck to seal it closed with a lid or small pot. Both cooking vessels and containers had tabular handles. Cooking vessels without handles were also observed during this study. Of the 57 vessels studied in person and from photos, 36 were associated with cooking use. The remainder were used as containers for various items, including basketry materials.

It is the opinion of the authors that the source for the style and technique of Yokuts and Western Mono ceramic vessels was the Great Basin area rather than the California or Southwestern culture areas. The evidence is compelling that the coiled pottery making tradition employed by the Western Mono and the Foothill Yokuts originated with the Owens Valley Paiute (Gayton 1929:250, 1948:2; Steward 1933:235, 257, 269; Wallace 1990: 72). Steward (1933:269) concluded that the pottery of the Western Mono, Yokuts, Owens Valley Paiute, and other adjoining groups “…forms an area within which distribution is continuous but not connected with southern California or the Southwest.” In late prehistoric times, most probably in the period around AD 1425 or somewhat later, the Western Mono obtained pottery technology from the Owens Valley Paiute.  Common usage of pottery postdates AD 1350 in the Owens Valley (Eerkens 2004:655, 657), with increasing evidence of pottery use in Owens Valley beginning AD 1425 (Eerkens and Lipo 2014:27, 28, Fig. 5).  This technology would then have “spread easier,” that is, diffused, to adjacent regions after AD 1425, according to Eerkens and Lipo (2014:30). Subsequently, Foothill Yokuts groups acquired the pottery making craft from the neighboring Western Mono with whom they engaged in trade (Gayton 1929:250; Spier 1978:430).  And, clearly, the coiled ceramic vessels made by south-central California Native people differed significantly from the paddle-and-anvil pottery making traditions employed among southeastern California Native people, such as the Ipai, Tipai, Kwaaymii, and Cahuilla.

The distribution of ceramic vessels among the Native groups in California has been of interest to anthropologists since it was first documented because production of fired pottery vessels was a characteristic associated with sedentary groups. In California, highly mobile cultures produced and used pottery extensively both in southern California and south-central California. An obvious question is why did the Great Basin (Owens Valley Paiute) pottery tradition never extend beyond the western Sierra Nevada Mountain foothill groups? Perhaps in time pottery making would have spread more widely in the Central Valley of California. Pottery making was a relatively new technology for these groups and cultural change is a risky proposition. Long established cultural norms and values motivate human behavior and can supersede perceived advantages in function of tools and activities. For example, pottery never replaced basketry production, which was an ancient tradition deeply embedded in Native cultures. As we carry out research on ceramic vessels in Native California forward, this important anthropological issue will be examined further.

References Cited

Barter, Eloise Richards

1987   The Chukchansi Yokuts Collections of Dr. John W. Hudson from the Vicinity of Millerton Lake State Recreation Area. California State Parks. Manuscript on file at the Field Museum, Chicago.

Eerkens, Jelmer W.

2004   Privatization, Small-Seed Intensification, and the Origins of Pottery in the Western Great Basin. American Antiquity 69(4): 653-670.

Eerkens, Jelmer W. and Carl P. Lipo

2014   A Tale of Two Technologies: Prehistoric Diffusion of Pottery Innovations among Hunter-Gatherers.  Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 35:23-31.

Gayton, A.H.

1929   Yokuts and Western Mono Pottery-Making. University of California       Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 24(3): 239 – 255.

1948   Yokuts and Western Mono Ethnography, I: Tulare Lake, Southern Valley, and  Central Foothills Yokuts.  University of California Anthropological Records  10(1):1-137.

Gifford, E.W.

1932 The Northfork Mono. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 31(2): 15-65.

Hector, Susan, Michael Sampson, Deborah Moss, and Kassandra Nearn

2017   Pilot Study Report: Research on the Harkleroad Native American Ceramic Vessel Collection, San Diego Museum of Man. Center for Research in Traditional Culture of the Americas, San Diego.

Hewes, Gordon W.

1941   Reconnaissance of the Central San Joaquin Valley. American Antiquity 7(2): 123-133.

Odegaard, Nancy

2009   Evaluation of Conservation and Preservation Practices in a Southwest  Pottery Collection. University of Arizona, Arizona State Museum.

Spier, Robert F. G.

1978   Monache.  In  California, Volume 8, edited by Robert F. Heizer, pp. 426-436.  Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C.

Steward, Julian H.

1933   Ethnography of the Owens Valley Paiute.  University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 33(3):233-350.

Wallace, William J.

1990   Another Look at Yokuts Pottery-Making. Anthropological Papers 23: 172 – 178. Nevada State Museum.