Sequoia’s ancient mystery: Prehistoric rock basins

Bedrock Basin, Atwell Grove

One of the unsolved riddles handed down by Kaweah Country native people to present-day occupants are the prehistoric rock basins. Their distribution is confined to Tulare County and, in fact, they are only located in a small section of the Sierra Nevada in and adjacent to Sequoia National Park.

In this region there exist numerous smoothly rounded basins artistically chiseled out of solid granite. These are the work of an ancient people whom the present-day Native Americans know nothing about — either who made the basins or how.

Commonly called “Indian Bathtubs,” these cavities are located in granite slabs, measure four to five feet in diameter, and are two or more feet in depth. They are shaped like huge wash bowls with smooth curved sides and bottoms.

Initially, they were thought to be worn by the action of running water. But some are found in locations where there is no historical evidence of creeks or rivers.

The basins are found in groups at elevations from 4,000 to 9,000 feet, scattered over an area about 35 miles long. They are only found in the southeast part of the Sierra Nevada in Tulare County, which is drained by the Kaweah and Tule Rivers.

In 1925, George W. Stewart was camped at Redwood Meadow in Sequoia National Park, where he inspected some of these mysterious basins in the company of Stephen Mather, first director of the National Park Service.

Known as the “Father of Sequoia National Park” for his role in the creation of the park in 1890, Stewart was the editor and publisher of the Visalia Delta newspaper. He is remembered for his efforts to preserve the Big Trees. Before his death in 1931, he wrote extensively on national parks including an article on the rock basins that was published in the American Anthropologist in 1929.  

Colonel John Roberts White (left), superintendent of Sequoia National Park from 1920-1939 and 1943-1947, with George W. Stewart, the Father of Sequoia National Park.

In this article, Stewart described the basins near Redwood Meadow. These specimens had been excavated in the tops of small granite knob-like outcrops scattered among the giant sequoias, pines, and firs adjoining the meadow.

“The knobs consist essentially of unfractured, massive granite and measure from five to fifteen feet in height and from twenty to thirty feet in major diameter” he described. “The basins are almost perfectly circular in outline and smoothly concave. In a general way, they resemble the well known mortar holes in which the Indians grind acorns and seeds, but they are many times larger and more smoothly finished.”

Nearly a century later, there is still no definitive research to explain these curious basins. One conclusion in the Stewart article was that the basins are of artificial, not natural origin. Who made this curious rockwork and how they were used remains one of the great mysteries of the Sequoia region of Tulare County.

Disclaimer: These rock basins are archaeological sites and may contain information helpful to researchers in deciphering their origin. It is illegal to excavate, disturb, or remove any forest materials from those vicinities.

Bedrock Basin, Redwood Creek Grove
Bedrock Basin, Atwell Grove

 

23 thoughts on “Sequoia’s ancient mystery: Prehistoric rock basins

  • August 15, 2019 at 11:46 am
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    These are not a mystery anymore they were for salt production. They are all located near creeks with high salt content. There are some located on case mountain by the sequoias next to salt creek.

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  • August 15, 2019 at 5:19 pm
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    Maybe there was a salty spring nearby.

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  • August 16, 2019 at 7:39 am
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    There are also several next to Oriole lake.

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  • August 16, 2019 at 9:41 am
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    And we found several in one small area out up Salt Creek, in the redwood groves. Nearby was an old cattle camp. It was behind what is now the microwave station and heading out toward Homer’s Nose. Again top of the mountain, no water nearby.

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  • August 16, 2019 at 9:51 am
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    Fantastic conversation- fascinating historical information.

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  • August 16, 2019 at 10:17 am
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    One of the most wonderful things about the bedrock basins is their mystery, and the way they invite creative hypotheses. There is, as yet, no scientific consensus on whether they are natural, entirely anthropogenic, or human-assisted natural occurrences. One prevailing hypothesis is that the basins were created during the Tioga glaciation via the action of ice and rocks. There are multiple sets of basins below the currently assumed lower extent of the glaciation, however. Regardless of the mechanism of their formation, there is substantial evidence that most of them were used by humans belonging to the Tübatulaba, Potwisha, and possibly Wukchumni tribes. This inference is supported by the proximity of bedrock mortars and other material indicators of human use and occupation. James Moore’s hypothesis that the bedrock basins were used in association with salt springs is not a viable hypothesis for most of the known bedrock basins, which are not located near any salt springs. The association between basins and sequoia groves is significant; however, an association does not indicate causal relationship. Some researchers have posited that the tannic sequoia bark may have been used to process hides in the basins; however, I have seen no data supporting such an argument. For many of us, the mystery of the bedrock basins is part of their appeal.

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    • August 16, 2019 at 2:52 pm
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      Excellent! Thank you!

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  • August 16, 2019 at 11:35 am
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    Maybe a headline change is due–? Ancient Mystery Solved?
    Fascinating topic–enjoyed the article and the comments. Thanks to all.

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  • August 16, 2019 at 12:08 pm
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    Salt evaporation was associated with some of the northern Miwok basins, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case in our area. Some good, authoritative references are:

    1. Bedrock Basins in the Sierra Nevada, Alta California https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/cal.2012.4.1.99

    2. Origin of Meter-Size Granite Basins in the Southern Sierra Nevada, California https://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2008/5210/sir2008-5210.pdf

    Several of our local basins have a layer of ash from the Glass Creek Vent eruption in A.D. 1350 (located southwest of Crestview).

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    • August 17, 2019 at 5:51 am
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      So they were for salt production in other places but the ones on case mountain next to what we call Salt Creek were not? I’d say the ones on salt creek were for salt production maybe they were used for other purposes in other places if there was no salty creek or spring nearby.

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  • August 17, 2019 at 5:57 am
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    As far as layer of ash from 1350 A.D. maybe these pre date 1350 that wasn’t that long ago. They could be 10,000 years old as far as we know.

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  • August 17, 2019 at 9:47 pm
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    I have comment envy! I think they were made by Bigfoot.

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  • August 19, 2019 at 5:57 pm
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    Just found a new set of 4 rock basins in Mineral King on the East Fork of the Kaweah River about 100 feet above it, and water nowhere near otherwise. This is similar to the 5 other known locations in MK, which are also nowhere near water. So much for salty creeks, eh?

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    • August 27, 2019 at 4:53 pm
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      Yup used for something else. Still made by natives

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  • August 19, 2020 at 5:21 pm
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    Perhaps, since there are no creeks or salt springs nearby, they were created to catch rainwater for the purpose of providing source of drinking water for travelers. They fashioning of the pits could have been worked on during the winter time, when there would have been plenty of snow around to melt to provide water to shock/crack the heated stone before chipping away.

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  • October 17, 2020 at 7:54 pm
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    My intuition tells me that these many scattered Rock basins are prehistoric in nature. Maybe over 5000 years old. The ancient peoples of the world had amazing skills, and they were Masters at manipulating Rock and building giant rock structures. These Rock basins were built using this advanced ancient technology. The purpose for the rock basins is simple! They were used to store water and probably had something covering them. Nowadays we see water tanks all over that area. All different sizes just like the rock basins. My mother lives in three Rivers and has a water tank on her property. She also has a big rock with a couple of mortar holes used by the ancient Indians.

    Reply

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