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While pursuing big game was certainly part of Paleoindian adaptations, their strategies for survival went beyond this stereotype. In fact, evidence for Folsom groups settling in and utilizing their local environments has been found throughout the Rocky Mountains. At the Mountaineer site near Gunnison, Colorado, remains of some of the oldest houses in North America reveal that Folsom hunter-gatherers spent a considerable amount of time at the site. These houses give archaeologists a glimpse into the everyday lives of a Folsom community as they dealt with the challenges of living at the end of the Ice Age.

Brooke Morgan got her start in archaeology as a volunteer in the laboratory at Loyola University Chicago, where she helped catalog stone tools and debris from the Mueller-Keck Clovis site in St. Clair County, Illinois. It was here she developed an interest in Paleoindian archaeology. The museum is open free to the public from a. Tours and special programs are available for groups with reservations. A handful of sites containing evidence for the hunting and butchering of late Ice Age animals—notably Columbian mammoths —between 13, and 18, years ago, if not earlier, have been preserved on the plains of Colorado.

The evidence is generally limited to distinctively broken long bones thought to indicate marrow extraction and perhaps the use of the fragmented bones as simple tools.

Nomadic hunters of the Clovis culture or cultures had spread across the breadth of the country by 13, years ago. Their seemingly sudden appearance over such vast spaces begs the question of whether this represents swift migrations into previously unpopulated lands or merely the rapid spread of their lithic stone tool technology—most readily recognized by their iconic fluted projectile points —across an already thinly occupied landscape. The issue is still hotly debated.

The Clovis culture is best known in Colorado from the Dent site near Greeley , where remains of butchered mammoths have been found. One of the large game species that survived the dramatic climatic changes at the end of the Ice Age was the bison.

Clovis and Folsom hunters pursued a more massive species with longer horns, Bison antiquus , from which the modern bison evolved. In time, later Paleo-Indian groups developed sophisticated systems of communal bison hunting that allowed them to successfully dispatch as many as animals in a single communal game drive. A few Paleo-Indian sites in Colorado provide evidence of aspects of everyday life other than hunting. Best known is the Lindenmeier site in Larimer County , a repeatedly used camp of the Folsom culture now designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Lindenmeier also preserves less deeply buried layers of the later Paleo-Indian, Archaic, and Formative periods. Paleo-Indian camps rarely retain evidence of lightweight shelters, sometimes only indirectly recognized by the distribution of features and surrounding discarded artifacts. But at the Mountaineer Site near Gunnison, the rock foundations of more substantial wood-framed and mud-covered houses of Folsom groups have been found on a mesa top.

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Archaeologists believe these are winter occupations where the mesa-top setting had the advantage of being above the valley bottom where cold air pools during calm winter nights. A few hints of the spiritual beliefs of Paleo-Indian groups also survive. In a high mountain cave in central Colorado, the bones of a man who died more than 8, years ago are preserved. Many traditional societies worldwide consider caves to be symbolic portals to and from the spirit world, so Paleo-Indians and later groups could have held similar beliefs. Red ocher coated the remains, and numerous stone tools were present along with a few ornamental artifacts of animal bone and tooth.

Caches of artifacts—usually of flaked stone tools—have been found in isolated Paleo-Indian contexts at the Drake and Mahaffey sites in Colorado. Exceptionally well-made projectile points manufactured from materials gathered or traded from distant sources are present at the Drake Cache site in Logan County. This generalized hunter-gatherer lifeway is marked by changing styles of artifacts and features found in the archaeological record. The term Archaic holds connotations of primitive or outdated, but Archaic peoples were the ultimate survivalists. Highly adapted to their environments, their familiarity with a huge range of natural resources enabled a critical flexibility in the face of climate, floral, and faunal changes.

Most if not all Archaic populations descended from preceding Paleo-Indian cultures. But regardless of their origins, Archaic cultures in Colorado shared certain basic technologies only slightly altered from Paleo-Indian forms.

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Thus, artifacts of stone, bone, antler, horn, wood, and other natural materials continued to be made in the absence of any metal or manufactured glass obsidian , a natural volcanic glass, was used to a limited degree. Ceramic containers were not yet known, nor were hamlets or villages permanently occupied. So what was different about Archaic cultures?

The differences were more a matter of degree than of kind. Hunting weapons continued to be spears propelled by atlatls , but the stone spear tips were smaller than Paleo-Indian forms and might be notched on the lower edges or corners. Spear points and other flintknapped tools were usually made from locally available rock types rather than from distant source materials. Use of a broad range of native plant species is clear, far more so than in earlier millennia. The seeds of wild plants were milled into flour using a pair of grinding stones the mano and metate made of sandstone and other abrasive rocks.

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Large game animals continued to be hunted, but a range of smaller game such as rabbits and prairie dogs also were sought; fish and birds such as wild turkeys were taken less frequently. Snares, deadfall traps, and nets may have been used more often than spears for smaller game. Herd hunting of bison and other large herbivores using communal game drive systems endured, but in the Archaic period the evidence for this is more abundant in the subalpine and alpine heights of the Front Range than it is on the plains or western plateaus.

The Kaplan-Hoover bison kill site in Larimer County is one of the few such lower elevation sites known in Colorado for this period. Camps were established in many of the same places used by their ancestors, but the use of shallow rockshelters as camps increased markedly. Rockshelter and cave walls, and open cliff faces and boulders, were sometimes adorned with rock art. Abstract and geometric designs are common and are interpreted as the work of shamans communicating with the spirit world. Representational images of people and animals also occur, sometimes with exaggerated features.


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Other spiritual aspects of Archaic cultures are seen in burial sites. Usually in isolated locations outside camps, Archaic groups buried their deceased in unlined pits using the same flexed body position as in Paleo-Indian times. Likely wrapped in hide, bark, or textile robes that have not preserved, the remains were often buried with the tools of everyday life such as seed milling implements, bone awls, hunting equipment, etc. But for those fortunate enough to survive childhood, a reasonably long life could be enjoyed.

At the Yarmony site in Eagle County , an elderly woman 60 years old or more was buried with two sandstone manos.

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Yarmony and many other Archaic camps preserve the buried foundations of houses in a variety of forms. Semi-subterranean pithouses comparable to much later Basketmaker houses of the Ancestral Puebloans have been found in the Colorado and Gunnison River basins. Similar surface-level dwellings—wood-framed and capped with an insulating layer of mud—are also known from the same areas.

A few sites contain rock slab foundations.


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Several styles of more temporary shelters have been found, some similar to the wickiups and tipis found in much younger sites. Although credible numbers are hard to come by, archaeologists believe that Archaic population levels were never very high, perhaps a few tens of thousands statewide. Higher populations would have stretched the available resources to the limit, given the need to accumulate a store of goods to survive long winters.

But late in the Archaic period the transition to farming began in the American Southwest and soon spread to southern Colorado. The earliest evidence of farming in Colorado, at about — BC, is found in sites near Durango such as the Falls Creek Rock shelters. Once farming became more widespread, a very different era dawned: the Formative period.

The contrast between the archaeology of the Formative period and the earlier eras is striking.

Hunter-Gatherer Archaeology of the Colorado High Country

What transpired among the inhabitants of the region to cause such a radical shift in lifeways? It was the Neolithic Revolution , to use the label describing the foraging-to-farming transition in the Old World.

Agriculture focused on the domestic crop triad of corn, beans, and squash, which afforded farmers occasional surpluses for storage, trade, and tribute. All three crops have their origins in the tropics of Mexico and do not thrive in the cool nights and erratic growing seasons of the northern Southwest. Farming in Colorado, then, was risky, and some groups such as the Fremont hedged their bets by hunting and gathering whenever the need arose.

Archaeology of the Gunnison Area | Western Colorado University

Others, such as the Plains Woodland peoples on the plains, only farmed on occasion and in localized areas where success was more likely. The indigenous mountain residents never farmed, although they may have traded for some of the harvest and otherwise interacted with their more sedentary neighbors. Intermarriage was undoubtedly common if the trends of recent history are any guide.

The production of ceramics, particularly cooking jars, made farming even more viable. Dropping hot rocks into broths held in water-proofed baskets was the only way for Paleo-Indian and Archaic chefs to cook soups and stews, but it was not an effective method for beans. But ca. AD , pottery cooking-jars changed the dynamic, allowing beans to become a welcome supplement to Formative diets. Pottery was not an invention of Colorado residents but instead spread into the state from the south and east.