Frontier in Transition: A History of Southwestern Colorado
BLM Cultural Resources Series (Colorado: No. 10)
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The Ancient Ones

The earliest known inhabitants of southwestern Colorado date from approximately 10,000 years, although there have been archaeological discoveries that identify Folsom-type hunters as using the area, pushing this date back even further. Believed to have been part of the earliest transcontinental migrations to North America from Asia, the Folsom culture has been traced to the southwestern Colorado region through the location of their distinctive weapons. Folsom Points, crude implements and other weapons have been discovered on the Uncompahgre Plateau; and judging from their craftmanship, these people were relatively skilled artisans. Their weapon points were typified by a longitudinal groove removed from either face, thus reducing resistance to penetration and improving hunting techniques. [1] There is no evidence to support the theory that Folsom man cultivated any plants, and while these prehistoric hunters depended on game for food, they no doubt ate roots, berries, and seeds. Living quarters consisted of caves, and crude shelters made of grass and hides. The Folsom culture displayed nothing in the way of arts or pottery; they made no use of metals, and did not domesticate animals. [2] A prehistoric people that appear to be older than the Folsom group, the Clovis hunters, are also distinguished by their weapon points, which are larger and not as well made as the Folsom variety. Whether continuous occupation of southwestern Colorado occurred from the time of the Clovis and Folsom groups through the years of other pre-Columbian habitations remains an area of speculation. Archaeological research has, however, lead to the theory that at least three other prehistoric cultures or complexes occupied the region prior to the earliest entrance of European explorers.

The Uncompahgre Complex, a group primarily dependent upon hunting and gathering, is said to have occupied the region of west-central Colorado along the Uncompahgre Plateau from approximately 8000 B. C. to A. D. 1881 (the end of the Ute occupation). [3] The societal organization of this prehistoric group has been defined as one which revolved around and adapted to the availability and/or lack of vegetation and wildlife in the region. Twelve different phases have been identified within the Uncompahgre Complex. They appear to reflect specific responses to outside influences and a changing environment. [4] The physical remains of this group illustrates such various patterns of use and adaptation on the Uncompahgre Plateau, a good example of which is the Christmas Rock Shelter. Artifacts recovered from this site illustrate that a variant of the Great Basin Desert Culture existed in southwestern Colorado. Examples of pottery and rock art found in the area indicate the presence of ideas and influences from outside cultures, presumably the Anasazi and the Fremont. Physical remains and "rock art" such as that found at Christmas Rock Shelter and in the Shavano Valley west of Montrose, and on the Dry Fork of Escalante Creek west of Delta, reveal a relatively unchanged way of life over many centuries until the time of European entrance into the area. It has been theorized, on the basis of this evidence, that the Uncompahgre Complex was the pregenitor of the Ute Indian culture. [5]

Although little is known about the Fremont group, it has been established that this people occupied the region to the north and west of the Uncompahgre Complex from about 700 A. D. until approximately the year 1100. The Fremont people constructed pithouse-like structures and used aboveground masonry; they also grew crops, notably corn and squash, while still depending upon hunting and gathering. This way of life continued until 1100 A. D., when they, for unknown reasons, returned to a roving and nomadic existence. [6]

Pueblo period sub-cultural distribution, southeastern Utah (Aikens 1966; Hunt 1953; Jennings 1966, 1974; Lipe, et al. 1960; Marwitt 1970; Morss 1931; Rudy 1954; Sharrock 1966; Wormington 1955). (click on image for a PDF version)

The most well known of the ancient inhabitants of southwestern Colorado are the Anasazi Indians. Although the Anasazi, a Navajo word meaning the "ancients" or the "old people", are most famous for their architectural masterpieces on the Mesa Verde, the extent of their culture went far beyond these "Cliff Dwellings". The fact is, there are a tremendous number of Anasazi sites in southwestern Colorado. The Pueblo I and II culture was shown to have once extended as far north as the Paradox Valley in western Montrose County, and sites have been located in the "Pagosa-Piedra" region in Archuleta County. [7]

Prior to the year 1 A. D., a nomadic people, dependent upon hunting and the gathering of wild seeds, fruit and plants for their livelihood, were scattered over southwestern Colorado and adjacent portions of the neighboring states of New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. Following this roving and hunting mode of life, a decided advance in the development of this culture came with the introduction of agriculture, the essential character of which fostered a more permanent existence. The Basketmaker Period began with these earliest experiments in agriculture in approximately the year 1 A. D., and lasted until about 450 A. D. Early farming methods were crude, where only a single variety of corn and squash were raised. Archaeological discoveries have shown that small caches and storage bins were constructed in order to hold and preserve their crops. Following the ways of their ancestors, bags, blankets, baskets, and sandals were woven from the tough yucca plants that grew wild on the nearby mesas. [8]

The addition of pottery, the gradual development of the pithouse, and the introduction of the bow and arrow into the culture signalled an evolution into a second Anasazi developmental era, the Modified Basketmaker Period, which is dated from approximately 450 A. D. to 750 A. D. The clay pottery that replaced the use of woven baskets for storage and cooking, and the introduction of the bow and arrow were probably innovations borrowed from other tribes in the area. [9] The basic construction of the Modified Basketmaker pithouse was a simple hole, several feet deep and from ten to twenty feet in diameter. A log frame was built above ground, which was then covered with interwoven reeds and grass. A layer of earth was placed over this lath to form a combination sidewall and roof. A small opening in the center of the structure provided entrance and an exit for smoke. As the majority of pithouses were built on the mesa tops and in the open, this example of Anasazi development suggests that the Modified Basketmaker lived in relative tranquility with his neighbors.

The change from the Modified Basketmaker pithouse as single family units to a more communal housing arrangement marked the beginnings of the Developmental Pueblo Period, which dated from approximately 750 A. D. to 1100 A. D. The first pueblos were rather crudely constructed of posts and adobe. By the end of the period however, adobe had given way to masonry and more advanced construction. The kiva, a Hopi word to describe the rooms that resemble the modern Pueblo ceremonial chamber, became more advanced in structure. Circular, subterranean, some twelve to fourteen feet in diameter, seven or eight feet deep with walls of dressed stone, the kiva was located in front of the living rooms. Like the earlier pithouses, the kiva's only door was a small opening in the center of the roof, which also served as a smoke-hole. One of the most novel changes in this period was the introduction of the wooden cradle board, replacing the Basketmakers' pliable, pillowed, reed and grass cradle.

Due to this change, it was once thought that the Basketmaker and the Pueblo Cultures were of distinct origin, due to the difference of skull formations found in unearthed remains. Pottery techniques also advanced in the Developmental Pueblo Period, as the dull, natural hues of earlier pottery were abandoned for clear white, which showed designs more advantageously.

The last two centuries of Anasazi occupation in southwestern Colorado, from 1100 A. D. to approximately 1300 A. D., saw the climax of the evolution of cultural development in the Classic Pueblo Period. During this time, agriculture reached new levels. Most crops were cultivated on the mesa tops, but small, terrace-like patches at the heads of canyons were also used. On the floors of canyons, the Pueblo people constructed dams for water storage, the first examples of irrigation technique in Colorado. Cotton probably was not grown in any quantity on the Mesa Verde, so the presence of woven cotton cloth among the ruins suggests trade with other Indians. These last two hundred years were times of societal regimentation; kivas became more standardized, the pueblo dwellings became larger; and tall round towers were built. The mesa tops were abandoned in favor of the more strategic canyon walls. From this period the architectural masterpieces and ornate pottery that we are familiar with today were created. Ironically, this period of cultural greatness marked the beginning of the demise of the Anasazi civilization in southwestern Colorado, for by 1300 A. D. these master craftsmen had abandoned the area.

Numerous theories abound concerning the possible explanation for the Anasazi desertion. Severe drought, war with other tribes, or a depletion of natural resources have all been suggested as reasons.

For 450 years after the Anasazi had left the Mesa Verde and surrounding regions, the ancient ruins that marked the height of their habitation remained a well hidden secret. With the Dominguez-Escalante expedition in 1776, the European world would discover the first remnants of a past and great civilization. Another century would pass before a Coloradan would uncover the ancient beauty of Cliff Palace. From these early discoveries of prehistoric civilizations in southwestern Colorado, people began attempts at reconstruction of these past societies.

Escalante, one of the ancient ruins of the Anasazi civilization.

Chapter II: Notes

1. Al Look, 1000 Million Years on the Colorado Plateau (Denver: Bell Publications, 1955), p. 319.

2. ibid., p. 316.

3. United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Proposed Development of Coal; West Central Colorado Final Environmental Statement, (Vol. 1 (Denver: Bureau of Land Management, Colorado State Office, 1979), p. 115.

4. Ibid.

5. For an authoritative treatment of the archaeology of west central Colorado see: William G. Buckles, "The Uncompahgre Complex: Historic Ute Archaeology and Prehistoric Archaeology on the Uncompahgre Plateau in West Central Colorado" (Ph.D. Thesis: University of Colorado, 1971).

6. United States Department of the Interior, op. cit., p. 115.

7. J. A. Jeancon, "Primitive Coloradans", Colorado Magazine (II, No. 1, January, 1935), p. 35.

See also: G. Woodbury, "The Archaeological Survey of Paradox Valley, Colorado Magazine (IX, No. 1, January, 1932), pp. 8-15.

8. LeRoy R. Hafen, Colorado: A Story of the State and Its People (Denver: The Old West Publishing Co., 1945), p. 39.

9. Information dealing with Anasazi occupation in the southwestern Colorado region appears in numerous history and archaeology texts. The author relied most heavily on the works of the following authors for the discussion of the Anasazi civilization: Carl Abbott, Colorado: A History of the Centennial State (Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1976); LeRoy R. Hafen, Colorado and Its People, Vol. 1 (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co. Inc., 1948); Wilbur F. Stone, History of Colorado, Vol. 1 (Denver: S. J. Clarke and Co., 1918); and Carl Ubbelohde, Maxine Benson, and Duane Smith, A Colorado History (Boulder: Pruett Press, 1976).

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Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008