Paleo and Archaic Cultures

Mano and Metate on Deerhide
Manos and metates, stone tools used by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years to grind seeds and other plant materials, have been found around the dunes. All natural
and cultural objects at Great Sand Dunes are protected by federal law. Please leave any artifact you find in place and notify a ranger.



Paleo Era

Paleo people put spears into a massive Columbian mammoth beside water and trees
For the earliest peoples at Great Sand Dunes, giant Columbian mammoth were a significant source of food, along with a variety of other mammals and plants.

NPS Illustration

The newest research suggests that the arrival of the first peoples to North America was much earlier and more complex than previously thought. While the Bering Land Bridge may have been a primary route of entrance from Asia, other routes by boat were likely used as well. The discovery of fossilized human footprints at White Sands National Park dated at 22,000 years BP (Before Present) indicates the first presence of people on the continent significantly earlier than the previous estimates of 13,000 years BP.

Three paleo projectile points are displayed on a black background. On the left is a small, triangular Pre-Clovis point, in the center is a long Clovis spearpoint; on the right is a small fluted Folsom point
Examples of Pre-Clovis (left); Clovis (center); and Folsom (right) projectile points.


One way to trace early peoples is from distinctive stone projectile points that have survived for millennia. In the 1920s, the discovery of Columbian mammoth remains with long spear points near Clovis, New Mexico was the first documentation of mammoth hunting by people in North America. These early nomadic people began to be referred to as the Clovis culture. With the newest research indicating people here perhaps thousands of years before Clovis, archeologists are now identifying a variety of projectile points associated with Pre-Clovis people.

Bones from huge prehistoric bison (Bison antiquus) with much smaller, thinner projectile points were found in the same decade near Folsom, New Mexico, prompting the working name of Folsom culture. While not enough is known yet about Pre-Clovis people, Clovis and Folsom may be the same or related people that designed new hunting tools for bison as the mammoth were becoming extinct.

Pre-Clovis, Clovis and Folsom cultures are grouped into the Paleo era.

In this illustration, a large prehistoric bison with thick fur and long horns stands in front of the dunes during the Ice Age. Another bison is in the distance, and the dunes are in the background.
Two prehistoric Bison antiquus stand in grasslands west of the dunes at the end of the last Ice Age. These bison were over 7 feet (2.3 m) tall and 15 feet (4.5 m) long. Each horn was 3 feet (1 m) long.

Illustration: NPS/Patrick Myers

Archeological evidence of Pre-Clovis people at Great Sand Dunes has likely been found, but not yet confirmed as Pre-Clovis. Pre-Clovis projectile points documented from other parts of the continent are quite varied in style, some even resembling points from later eras. The shifting sand environment in many parts of the dunes area does not always maintain stratification representing different millennia, presenting another challenge to positively identifying a Pre-Clovis artifact. Finally, Pre-Clovis research is expanding in North America, but still relatively limited.

Evidence at Great Sand Dunes does clearly indicate the presence of both Clovis and Folsom era people here during a wetter, colder time toward the end of the last ice age. Melting glaciers fed the valley with abundant water, creating large wetlands and thick grasses that supported Columbian mammoth and Bison antiquus (large prehistoric bison). As mammoths disappeared due to natural climate change and hunting pressure, Folsom hunters focused especially on Bison antiquus along with smaller mammals.

A Folsom-era hunter prepares to launch a spear from an atlatl at a large prehistoric bison at the edge of a large lake. The dunes and snowcapped mountains are in the distance.
Using an atlatl, a hunter prepares to launch a spear at a Pleistocene-era bison by a large lake west of the dunes.

Illustration: NPS/Patrick Myers

The atlatl is an ancient tool that uses the laws of physics to achieve far greater velocity in spear throwing by extending the arc of the person's arm. Atlatl darts can achieve speeds over 100 mph (160 kph) with a full-sized atlatl and experienced thrower. Paleo hunters were able to more effectively bring down larger or faster mammals by using this technology. Smaller, thinner, and lighter projectile points such as the Folsom point allowed the dart to travel even farther.

Hunting massive Ice Age mammals was dangerous, as mammoth or Bison antiquus could easily kill or severely injure people. Sabertooth cats and huge short-faced bears would also be attracted to the smell of meat and could attack the hunters.

In the Paleo era, each person had to have a vast working knowledge of every plant - how it could be processed and used for food, medicine, or fibers. They needed to have tremendous engineering skill to craft perfectly arced projectile points, sewing needles, and countless other items for all aspects of life. They had to know how to predict weather, understand the life cycles and movements of animals and birds, and intimately know the geography of large regions. Finally, they needed to teach this knowledge, share generational stories and lessons, and impart their spiritual beliefs to each new generation.

An illustration showing Folsom-era men and women processing prehistoric bison after a major hunt
This illustration captures what part of a Folsom-era campsite may have looked like after a kill of large prehistoric bison.

NPS Illustration

At a major Folsom-era archeological site in the national park excavated by the Smithsonian over 15 years, at least 49 bison were trapped into a small dune and killed using atlatls. Four to seven families worked together over about a week, processing the meat to dry, preparing foods, crafting new projectile points, and making clothing and tent covers. Based upon the unique stone source materials in each household, it appeared to be gathering of people from different regions. Margaret (Pegi) Jodry of the Smithsonian supervised the excavation of this important site and captured this research in her thesis, Folsom Technological and Socioeconomic Strategies: Views from Stewart's Cattle Guard and the Upper Rio Grande Basin, Colorado.

During Paleo times, smaller bands of nomadic family groups would sometimes meet up with other groups to hunt, trade, share information and resources, find spouses for their grown sons and daughters, and perhaps participate in ceremonies or celebrations. Great Sand Dunes has long been a landmark in this region, a unique place to find and meet with others, and a place of bountiful natural resources.


Archaic Era

An Archaic era family fishes in the foreground while other people work on a boat and tend to pithouses. There are trees and mountains in the background.
Plant processing, particularly of small seeds, as well as fishing, become more prominent in the Archaic era. In this illustration, a family uses spears to fish in a creek on the valley floor, while other people are working near pithouses and a boat. A seasonal pithouse has been excavated by archeologists west of Great Sand Dunes, and a 5,000-year-old fish processing site has been discovered near the remnant of a large lake.

NPS Illustration

Archaic-era Projectile Point Made of Petrified Wood
Archaic points have a variety of sizes and shapes, with most designed for atlatls. Late in the Archaic, bow and arrow began to be used, prompting smaller points.


At the beginning of the Archaic era around 8,000 – 6,000 years BP, the climate continued to dry and warm, and few Ice Age mammals were left. Projectile points from this era are generally narrower than Paleo points, likely used to hunt smaller mammals such as elk, deer, and modern bison. Bow and arrow technology was introduced late in the Archaic era, around 1,600 years BP, contributing to the need for even lighter points. Pithouses were a common dwelling for many Archaic-era peoples. A circular pit was dug into the soil, then a square or conical structure of timbers was placed over it, covered by animal hides or brush. A small, seasonal version of a pit house was discovered by archeologists west of the dunefield.

Pottery, fishing and agriculture became more prevalent in this era, though the San Luis Valley’s short growing season is not conducive to growing the typical Archaic crops of corn, beans, and squash. Due to harsh winters, Indigenous peoples have historically spent time in the valley spring through fall, most often retreating to lower elevations in winter.

About 6,000 years ago, an extremely dry era began, referred to as the Altithermal. There was significantly less human activity here during a roughly 2,000-year span, as edible plants and animals were more scarce. The dunes likely had significant growth during this time, as vegetation on the valley floor withered and sand deposits there became mobile.

A simple petroglyph of a turtle incised onto an oval rock
This turtle petroglyph found in the national park may date from the Archaic era.


Because projectle points have often been emphasized in archaeological studies, so too have male hunting activities. During the Archaic, a proliferation of ground stone tools provides insight into the gathering and plant processing activities of women and children, including horticulture (and later, agriculture), and the deadfall trapping of small mammals. The social, economic, artistic, and spiritual contributions of all members of society can be viewed among a wider array of material objects. Rare discoveries of ancient toys, artwork, jewelry, and even musical instruments give us glimpses into their creativity, relationships, and spirituality.

Long tubular rocks laid out in a row to be played like a xylophone
Lithophones are ancient musical instruments that were played around the dunes.

CPR photo

For many decades, archeologists were mystified by long, tubular rocks found around the dunes. They are now recognized as ancient musical instruments. Called ‘lithophones’ (litho=rock, phone=instrument), they may have filled the evening air with worship or celebrational music around a campfire.

Virtually play and listen to these stones on this Colorado Public Radio page.

Last updated: November 7, 2023

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