Team finds clues of region’s earliest inhabitants

The rock overhang sits at the mouth of a small canyon in the Salt Creek valley north of Loma.

There are likely thousands of similar geological features scattered among the sagebrush- and juniper-dotted hills of northwest Colorado. But this particular overhang is unique, as Dominguez Anthropological Research Group spokesman Rich Ott noted, because it “had some things in it.”

Specifically, clues about the earliest inhabitants of western Colorado, what their daily life might have been like and the sort of climatic cycles that occurred several millennia before the Grand Valley was settled.

Two months of digging this summer by college students and workers associated with the Grand Junction-based nonprofit organization yielded artifacts and sedimentary evidence inside a rock shelter indicating human occupation 7,000 to 8,000 years ago. Officials say a concentration of charcoal recovered in older deposits at the site may indicate the presence of a culture from the Late Paleoindian time period known as the Foothills-Mountain people, who first appeared in western Colorado about 10,000 years ago.

“The story of human occupation is fascinating whenever you start talking about 8,000 to 9,000 years ago,” Ott said. “Most people don’t know that people lived here that long ago.”

The site, whose exact location is being kept secret as part of an agreement by the research group with the Bureau of Land Management, was first recorded in 1980. Scientists revisited the site and conducted archaeological tests in 2009, which led to its eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places. The Dominguez Anthropological Research Group’s current work there is part of a cultural resources mitigation plan approved by the BLM and was triggered by proposed energy development on nearby land.

Archaeologists excavated more than 10 feet of soil and rock deposits and found stone tools, remains of small invertebrates, remnants of a post hole where a wall might have been erected and evidence of fire hearths.

Research group Director Michael Berry said the tool — made of obsidian and known as a McKean point — came from Idaho, providing insight into how far and wide prehistoric peoples’ habitats ranged.

Ott said the discovery of invertebrates, which prefer a cool, moist environment, suggests the climate of now-arid western Colorado was once much different.

“When times are good, people move here because there are plants and animals that can provide food,” he said. “When conditions change, people who are primarily hunter-gatherers move with those changes.”

Officials are analyzing the data recovered from the rock shelter and will use it to interpret the site’s culture history.

Funding for this summer’s project came from corporate sponsors and a grant from the Colorado Historical Society.

As noteworthy as the site in the Bookcliffs is for its age, the Dominguez Anthropological Research Group has found evidence of an even older occupation on the Western Slope.

A study site on Battlement Mesa yielded tentative evidence of human occupation as far back as 15,000 years. Ott emphasized the data obtained thus far is inconclusive, and the research group is looking for additional funding to return to the site and conduct additional testing.

Should workers find more conclusive evidence of earlier inhabitants, it would challenge the prevailing archaeological theory that the first human inhabitants of the New World were the Clovis people roughly 13,500 years ago.

“The significance of these sites that DARG has been working on is it’s painting a much more fine-grained picture of climate change and how people moved into and out of the area over thousands of years,” Ott said.


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