New eyes on old Native American digs |

New eyes on old Native American digs

The Pueblo Chieftain
** FOR USE IN WEEKEND EDITIONS OF JUNE 20-21 ** In this photograph takne on Friday, June 5, 2009, Angie Krall, heritage program manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, left, joins Eric Gantt, middle, and Mark Mitchell, director of the Paleo Cultural Resource Group, in examining an excavation near Cochetopa Pass outside Saguache, Colo. The digging revealed three distinct fire sites and adds to evidence suggesting the area served as either a camping ground or more permanent settlement for multiple groups of Native Americans through the centuries. (AP Photo/Pueblo Chieftain, Matt Hildner)
AP | Pueblo Chieftain

SAGUACHE, Colorado – Long before Colorado 114 took drivers over the gentle Cochetopa Pass between Saguache and Gunnison, the corridor of rolling hills and lush stream bottoms provided a haven for travelers on foot for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Evidence of their passage sits in the foothills above the highway in the form of wobbly, stone foundations and long-buried campfire sites, along with the stray arrowhead or pottery shard.

The indications of repeated, if temporary, community sites from 200 A.D. to 900 A.D. drew a group of federal, nonprofit and volunteer archaeologists to the area earlier this month.

The stone foundations – often full or half circles of vertically laced stones that once supported wood huts – have drawn the attention of researchers for their similarity to others found as far east as the Apishapa and Purgatoire rivers and as far south as Cimarron, N.M.

Mark Mitchell, the research director for the PaleoCultural Research Group, said there is more documentation to do before the huts can be verified to have been built by the same people. But should his suspicions prove correct, he thinks the far-flung huts could dispel the idea that native peoples were singularly tied to certain areas.

“I think it’s becoming clear that the kind of mobility you saw, say in the 1900s and the 19th century and 18th century, where people were moving all around the plains and the Rocky Mountains – that’s a phenomenon that has been the case forever,” he said.

The succession of Native Americans who passed through the region include the Utes, Pueblo Indians and Athabaskan-speaking tribes, such as the Apache and Navajo.

But Mitchell and Angie Krall, heritage program manager for the Bureau of Land Management in the San Luis Valley, said specifically identifying who built the huts or who came before those groups is harder.

Krall said doing so would be much easier if researchers came across the stories, world views and basketry of the earliest groups.

“We’re only seeing the hard rock,” she said.

One signature of Ute presence on the site is a series of ponderosa pine trees with patches of peeled bark.

Marilyn Martorano and her daughter, Andrea, were taking core samples from the trees that would later be analyzed in a laboratory to determine the date the trees were peeled.

She said the Utes used the bark for tea and flour and harvested the pitch that welled up from the peeled part of the tree to use as an adhesive.

“I call these trees ‘7-Elevens’ because there were so many different things you could do with them,” she said.

Martorano, who works at an archaeological consulting firm, had donated her time at the site, while other volunteers at the site came without professional expertise.

David and Nancy Neal, of Del Norte, were helping determine the boundaries of the site.

And while they had done lithic analysis at the Rio Grande County Museum and had helped monitor local rock-art sites, they came without knowing much about the site.

“Just a little bit. Just enough to make us eager,” Nancy said.

They were brought to the site through the PaleoCultural Research Group, which serves as an umbrella organization for volunteers interested in learning more about what’s in their backyard.

Mitchell said there will be more trips to the site in the next few years, offering a chance for more volunteers to work.

It will also allow the professional archaeologists to make more headway with the site’s puzzles, such as figuring out what time of year the site was most commonly used, Mitchell said.

They also hope to get a better idea of the natural resources in the area that would have been a draw, and to document more details about the stone foundations.


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