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Oldest duck decoys anywhere found in Lovelock Cave

Editor’s Note: Nevada 150 is a yearlong series highlighting the people, places and things that make up the history of the state.

Forget the popular reality show. The real “Duck Dynasty” unfolded several thousand years ago along the shrinking remnants of ice age lakes in Northern Nevada.

There, the patient hands of hunters shaped tule rushes and feathers into decoys unmistakably made to lure canvasback ducks.

A cache of them was discovered in Lovelock Cave during an excavation first launched in 1911 by a pair of miners collecting bat guano to sell as fertilizer. Archaeologists were alerted to the existence of the cave, and they found 11 intact decoys stored inside two woven baskets.

It looked like they had been put away for the season by someone who never came back for them, said Gene Hattori, curator of anthropology for the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. “These caves were used as storage pantries.”

The ducks had been tucked away for roughly 2,000 years, making them the oldest decoys of their kind found anywhere on Earth. They show real artistry — more than seems necessary just to trick a duck, Hattori said. “They’re functional but very beautiful, too.”

There is some disagreement about who made them. The Northern Paiute trace the decoys back to forebears known as the People of the Marsh, but Hattori said researchers associate them instead with a group known as the Lovelock archaeological culture.

The tule duck decoy was named the official state artifact in 1995, though none of the 11 specimens from Lovelock Cave stayed in Nevada. Hattori said they are all part of the collection at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

All the state museum has are some fragments of tule duck decoys from Lovelock Cave and some modern-day re-creations. They were handcrafted by Mike Williams, a member of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe who gathers his own tule rushes, makes his own string and colors his decoys with natural red ochre and black resin from pinion pine trees, the way they would have been millennia ago.

They’re not quite the real thing, but they’re convincing enough to easily fool the average duck or reality show star.

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