The oak represented a stable food source because acorns could be stored for extended periods. Black oak acorns were preferred over other oaks by Miwok, Mono Lake Paiute, and Western Mono peoples. Black oaks don’t consistently produce good crops of acorns in good years, each family might collect and store about 2,000 pounds of acorns for use over the next several years. Yosemite Valley supports some of the best black oak woodland in the Sierra Nevada, and early people lit fires regularly to maintain them. Fires killed young pines and cedars that could outgrow and overshadow the oaks.
The chuckah was the Ahwahneechee’s pantry. Each chuckah could hold several hundred pounds of acorns, providing a substantial part of a family’s diet throughout the year. People built chuckahs with sloping tops to shed rain and snow and lined them with aromatic plants that naturally repel insects.
Acorns were gathered in the autumn, dried, and stored until needed. Before they were eaten, the nuts were cracked, the peanut-like skin removed, and they were pounded to a fine flour. To remove bitter tannins, the flour was leached, placed carefully in a sand basin, and water poured over it for several hours. The leached flour was then mixed with water in a watertight cooking basket. Special, red-hot stones were placed in the basket, stirred constantly, and after about 20 minutes, the acorn mush boiled, thickened, and was fully cooked. The mush was called nu’ppa by the Central Miwok, or sometimes nappati by the Southern Miwok. The Miwok also made ‘ule’, a jelled loaf of thick acorn mush.
Women had distinct preferences for how deep mortar holes should be for pounding different types of foods. This pounding rock is ideal for pounding acorns. Shallow mortar holes were preferred for processing black oak acorns, while deeper holes (6 inches or more in depth) were used for manzanita berries.
As acorns were pounded into flour, about a gallon of acorns are mounded up over the shallow hole. They are repeatedly pounded with a pestle (weighing from 5-12 pounds), which eventually reduced the dried, cleaned, acorn-nut meat into a coarse meal. The meal is sifted with a special basket and only the finest flour is kept aside; the coarser meal is again pounded with more nut-meats, and the process is continued.
After pounding, the acorn flour is placed in a sand basin and the bitter tannin compounds are removed by repeated applications of water. The resultant dough is mixed with water and boiled in watertight baskets by placing and stirring red-hot stones directly in the mush.
Obsidian, or volcanic glass, was a major commodity in the economy here. Flaking off the rock one piece at a time in a process called knapping, people made tools and weapons. Archeologists have found obsidian caches along known trade routes. This obsidian all originated from the east side of the Sierra Nevada. Contemplate your own ancestry. What cultures do you descend from? Chances are your ancestors were using similar technologies eight thousand years ago.
Several tribal groups claim portions of Yosemite National park as ancestral homelands. Indians from various tribes learned and passed on knowledge by telling stories, trading resources, intermarrying, and exchanging traditions.
Yosemite’s early inhabitants transported food, medicine, raw materials, and culture throughout the Sierra Nevada and California. To the west, they traded for clamshells, dried fish, and beads. In summer, they traveled east to the high Sierra where they exchanged acorns for salt, pine nuts, obsidian, and alkali fly larva (which they made into high-protein flour).