Desert Peoples / Native Peoples

Wooden Mortar

Wooden Mortar

Date unknown

Cahuilla: áwvvaxal
Mojave: ‘ahmo

Women used wooden or stone mortars to grind seeds, nuts, berries, and roots. A wooden mortar was preferred for sticky beans such as mesquite, a staple food for most desert Indigenous communities.

The bowl is formed by burning the center of a cottonwood or mesquite log and hand-shaping it to the preferred size. A stone pestle is used to pulverize the sweet honey mesquite beans into a mash and flour for eating fresh, dry, or in cakes and porridge. Mashed mesquite beans are also used to make pishpakhatem, a refreshing drink which, according to Cahuilla elders, was drunk throughout the hot summer months.

Many mortars are passed down from one generation to the next. Those with deep impressions may indicate that generations of women returned to the same location to gather and process food. Chemehuevi elder Matthew Leivas related that he inherited his grandmother’s bedrock mortar and stone pestle, which he still uses at home and for pounding mesquite beans in demonstrations for children and members of the public.

Cottonwood. H 19.2, Dia 12.7, D 13 cm
Joshua Tree National Park, JOTR 6735