The Early People of Where the Mountains Meet the Plains:

the Prehistory of Jefferson County, Colorado

-by Meg Van Ness

The prehistory of Jefferson County is the story of dispersed groups of people who traveled about the region, established camps when possible, and moved on when necessary. Their history is truly an unfolding tale with many chapters missing. It is pieced together through the recovery and study of scattered remains including stone tools, ceramics, and the remnants of an evening meal. It is a story of change through time, environmental adaptation, and technological innovation. But most important, it is the story of people.

The Paleo-Indian Stage

Generally accepted archaeological evidence indicates that early populations migrated from Asia near the end of the last glaciation, approximately 18,000 to 20,000 years ago. The movement of these people, into Alaska and continuing south through Canada, was a slow wandering journey spanning several thousand years. Gradually groups of people came to the Rocky Mountain region, and eventually they settled in what is now called Jefferson County.

The earliest evidence of people in Colorado is referred to as the Paleo-Indian stage and spans that time period from approximately 7,000 to 12,000 years ago. This stage, as with all chronological divisions we impose on prehistory, can be subdivided into numerous periods and is reflected by tremendous regional variation. Nonetheless, the hallmark of most Paleo-Indian sites is the beautiful craftsmanship of their spear points. The skill involved in the production of these weapons is matched only by their deadly efficiency. The points are classified by style and time periods with the earliest referred to as Clovis, followed by Folsom, Plano, and numerous others

Possible tools pre-dating 12,000 years ago have been located at several sites in the west, and, as archaeologists are want to do, always draw great debate in field camps, classrooms, meeting halls, and bars across the nation. Are the chipped stones a product of the hand of man or just the result of natural breaks? Are the dating methods reliable and is the association of the date to the possible tool legitimate? Do the breaks on the animal bones reflect human modification or just the natural wear and tear over time? One such site, the Lamb Spring site in Littleton, contains the remains of mammoths in possible association with stone tools. Several of the larger bones appear to have been crushed or otherwise modified and date to 2,000 years before the better documented Clovis period

Only 495 of the over 66,000 prehistoric archaeological sites recorded in Colorado have a Paleo-Indian component. Five of these, each represented by one or two spear point fragments, are in Jefferson County. Two of these were found in the Golden vicinity with one found during the excavation of a house foundation just west of downtown. Two others were found south of Morrison and the fifth is from a rock shelter site in the Ken Caryl Valley. The mixture of stone tools found on these sites may or may not be from the same time period as the Paleo-Indian spear points; the pottery fragments most certainly are not. The early inhabitants of Jefferson County often established camps where people had previously stayed.

Many of the Paleo-Indian sites identified in Colorado consist of the intricate intertwining of the bones of large animals with the stone tools that killed and butchered them. These kill sites are scattered across the state with several of the most spectacular located in the plains of northeastern Colorado. Whether the bones represent the remains of a single unfortunate mammoth or the chaotic jumble of hundreds of trampled bison, the purpose is clear. The Paleo-Indian populations relied heavily on the resources provided by the large animals referred to as the Pleistocene megafauna. It is probable that this heavy reliance on a specific and limited resource contributed to the extinction of the very animals they relied on. By the end of the Paleo-Indian stage the mammoths and giant bison were gone from North America.

Occasionally the remains of Paleo-Indian camps, including stone grinding slabs for plant processing, a more diverse tool assemblage, and even a small pipe with wild tobacco residue, are discovered. These camps are often located near a kill site and contain the tools and bones indicative of animal butchering.

As the Paleo-Indian stage draws to a close, the camps and other remains left by these early people suggest a greater social organization than found in previous periods and increased cooperation among groups. The people who lived during the succeeding Archaic stage continue these trends.

The Archaic Stage

Beginning about 7,000 years ago there was a gradual but definite shift in the pattern of human use of the region. The changes are due to a combination of regional climatic fluctuations and an increasing population, coupled with tremendous social change and technological innovation. Although this stage, referred to as the Archaic and lasting until about 2,000 years ago, is far better represented in the archaeological record than the preceding Paleo-Indian stage, the interpretation of the remains is difficult. The archaeology of the Archaic stage continues to be the interpretation of sparse remains on scattered sites representing a dispersed and mobile people.

Thirty-five Archaic sites have been recorded in Jefferson County, representing both rock shelters and open sites. Several of the most well-known examples of Archaic sites are located along the foothills. These include the Magic Mountain site just south of Golden, the Massy Draw site under the intersection of C470 and Ken Caryl Road, the LoDaisKa site along Highway 285 across from The Fort Restaurant, the Cherry Gulch site near Red Rocks Park, and the Willowbrook site in the Willowbrook subdivision three miles south of Morrison. All of these sites represent camps that were probably repeatedly occupied over the centuries. The remains are indicative of multiple activities and the increasingly diverse assortment of tools to accomplish those tasks.

Climatic changes during the Archaic stage were complex with tremendous regional variation. These changes were a primary influence in the lifestyle changes and population movements of Archaic populations. Gradually, on the Plains of eastern Colorado, the climate was becoming drier and the deciduous woodlands were giving way to the semi-arid desert environment of today. With the demise of many of the large Pleistocene megafauna populations, as indicated by the relative decrease in the number of kill sites, the people turned to the diverse variety of edible resources found in the region. Their food included several species of large and small mammals, birds, and reptiles, in addition to a wide variety of wild plants.

There is evidence that near the onset of the Archaic stage, from about 7,000 to 4,500 years ago, the environment on the western high plains became significantly warmer and drier than at present. This episode, referred to as the Altithermal, may explain the relatively low instances of archaeological sites dating to the early Archaic on the Plains. The climatic change may have driven much of the population to seek refuge in the foothills and mountains along the Front Range. Several high altitude sites located in the high country west of Boulder appear to support this theory. The stone tools found with these mountain camps possibly reflect the influence, if not a direct outgrowth, of those found on the Plains. On the other had, it is also postulated that the rarity of early Archaic sites on the Plains reflects our difficulty locating and identifying sites from this era - suggesting that the rarity of sites on the plains during the early Archaic reflects archaeological techniques rather than the movements of early people. Under this scenario, the mountain sites dating to this period may represent a tradition that initiated and evolved in the mountains

By the middle years of the Archaic the environment returned to a more hospitable climate with gradual cooling and increased moisture. Small groups of hunters and gatherers occupied the region, moving about the plains, foothills, and montane environments as the seasons changed. They would settle in small camps along the foothills, occupying both open ridges and valleys and the numerous rock shelters nestled among the outcrops. The remains of these camps are more plentiful then those of the preceding occupations and their distribution indicates a preference for water, shelter, a diversity of resources, and good views. Optimum locations, including particularly large rock overhangs or locations with a choice combination of resources and characteristics, were seasonally occupied for short periods of time over hundreds of years.

As more people filtered into the region, occupying locations and using resources not previously exploited, they expanded and modified their tools kits to meet their needs. Grinding tools, including manos and metates, are increasingly used to process a wide variety of wild plants. Flaked stone tools for chopping, cutting, and scraping reflect both the careful manufacture of a specific tool and the expedient use of a convenient rock. Large spear points with distinctive styles are manufactured and used to hunt a wide variety of animals. The point styles reflect use, regional variation and changes through time, thus becoming a primary dating indicator for the archaeologists that would follow.

For the first time, round structures made of a mixture of brush and clay built over a shallow pit, appear in the mountains. Although the rare remains of these possible homes are almost impossible to locate and even harder to interpret, they are some of the first indications of a more sedentary lifestyle. Technology and resourceful exploitation of the environment was allowing small groups of people to stay in one area long enough to construct a shelter. As the Archaic stage draws to a close, the choice to linger a while in a location becomes more and more prevalent.

The Ceramic Stage

While some of the traditions of the Archaic peoples continued into the early years of the first millennium AD, there were distinct changes on the horizon. The period following the Archaic, referred to as the Ceramic or Formative Stage, began nearly 2,000 years ago and lasted until approximately 200 years ago. The introduction of the bow and arrow and the use of pottery mark the onset of this stage, while the latter years include the earliest contacts of the native population with people from Europe. Throughout the state, this was a time of important changes in economic patterns, artifact complexes, and population distribution. When the Ceramic stage ended, so did a traditional yet dynamic way of life.

Artifacts and structures left by Ceramic stage populations are found throughout Colorado. The Anasazi and Fremont cultures, both sedentary horticulturist of Western Colorado, reach their zenith during this stage and left behind spectacular architecture and rock art. In eastern Colorado, a strong Plains Village Tradition influence from Nebraska and Kansas blends with the local traditions to create a rich and diverse material culture. The vast majority of the over sixteen thousand Ceramic stage sites in Colorado are located in the southwest with only 46 found in Jefferson County.

Eastern Colorado during this period lay along the western margin of the vast geographical area encompassing cultures of the Plains Village tradition. Extending from the Dakotas southward into the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, Plains Village culture included such traits as permanently settled villages with wattle-and-daub (or occasionally stone) structures, small projectile points, abundant bone tools, stones for grinding seeds and other plant parts, and cord-marked ceramics.

Remains at sites in the Jefferson County region include straight rimmed pottery jars with a variety of cord-impressed exteriors and small, serrated corner-notched projectile points. At some locations rectangular dry-laid stone structures were built with fire pits. A hunting and gathering economy is suggested by associated animal and plant remains including mule deer, wild cherries and plums, and acorns. The only evidence for horticulture is the single corn cob from the LoDaisKa site.

Although Ceramic Stage remains have been found throughout Jefferson County, a few sites in particular stand out as wonderful remnants of the diverse cultures. Some of these sites represent limited occupation, including the Hall-Woodland Cave just west of Golden, Graeber Cave in the Foothills along North Turkey Creek, the Chimney Gulch Rockshelter near the entrance to Clear Creek Canyon, and the Lindsay Ranch site located on the crest of a hogback approximately five miles north of Golden. Others are like layer cakes with each layer representing hundreds or maybe thousands of years of human activity at that location. In these cases, the Ceramic stage remains tend to cluster near the surface and may indeed themselves represent many diverse occupations. The before mentioned LoDaisKa and Willowbrook sites fall into this category, as does the Magic Mountain site near Heritage Square, the Van Bibber site at the crest of a hogback just north of Golden, and the Bradford House III site 1/4 mile south of the Wilowbrook site. Three rockshelters in the Ken-Caryl Valley, Falcon's Nest, Crescent Rockshelter, and the Swallow site, contained the remains of several occupations topped off by a rich Ceramic stage assemblage.

The latter years of the Ceramic stage, often referred to as the Protohistoric period, encompasses the span of time between the earliest introduction of European goods to the Indians and the onset of regular, direct contacts between Indians and persons of European descent. Initially this was a slow and intermittent development occurring at different rates throughout the state. Anglo incursions into the central and western high plains are known to have occurred on an infrequent basis during the latter half of the 18th century. By this time the mere presence of Anglos and Spaniards both to the east and south had created factional turmoil among many Plains Indian groups. Such external pressures, in addition to the advent of the pantribal, horse-oriented culture led to the accelerated decline of older Plains cultures.

In Closing

The prehistory of Jefferson County is also the story of traditions and changes. It is the story of adaptation to both seasonal changes and extended climatic fluctuations. The remains reflect both the stability of a resourceful people and the dramatic effect when outside influences filter into the region - sometimes blending and sometimes colliding. Our understanding of the people who lived here during the last 12,000 years is fleeting at best and much more study is needed.

Sources for additional information concerning prehistory or archaeology:

E. Steve Cassells

1997 The Archaeology of Colorado. 1997, Johnson Books, Boulder.

Sally Crum

1996 People of the Red Earth: American Indians of Colorado. Ancient City Press,

Santa Fe.

Brian M. Fagan

1994 In the Beginning: an Introduction to Archaeology. Harpers Collins College Publishers, New York

Brian M. Fagan

1995 Ancient North America: the Archaeology of a Continent. Thames and Hudson, London

Jesse D. Jennings

1983 Ancient North Americans. W.H. Freeman and Company, New York.


Meg Van Ness, Colorado Historical Society - Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation

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