Archive for November 4th, 2010

The Marks People Leave on the Land

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education

I recently saw an amazing photograph from Google Earth, courtesy of Dr. Jason LaBelle, archaeologist at CSU’s Department of Anthropology, that I had to share.  Dr. LaBelle is one of many consultants working with our staff to develop exhibits and verify content for our new museum.  I spent Monday morning with him, crouched over a small working surface in his on-campus office pouring over exhibit renderings and artifact lists, debating the merits of highlighting different themes for our exhibit on First Peoples.

One of the themes we want to explore is the continuity of people on this landscape.  As I’ve written before on this blog, people have lived on what is now Northern Colorado for at least 12,000 years (see Why is the Lindenmeier Archaeological Site Important? and We still learn from Lindenmeier).  We see evidence of human presence all over the landscape: from the ancient campsite of Lindenmeier to wagon ruts in the historic Overland Trail to abandoned railroad grades running along side Highway 287 to the highway itself. However, the photograph Dr. LaBelle showed me is one of the only times I’ve seen evidence of human occupation of the land representing an extreme depth of time so concentrated spatially. Take a look.

The photo is an aerial view of Rollins Pass, west of Nederland, Colorado.  In this photo are three obvious trails: a historic 19th century railroad grade, a modern road, and a recreation trail.  Many of our modern pathways follow earlier wagon and foot paths, which usually followed animal trails.  Animals find the easiest way across the landscape and so we benefit from their work and utilize their paths, too, for our roads and railroads.  Given this layering of uses over animal paths, these three trails could represent several hundred years of passing time and various uses.

But this photo captures something much older; ancient, in fact.  A faint dark line can be seen to the south of the obvious lines.  It follows the same contours of the landscape that the other three do.  This is a rock wall built by Paleoindians many thousands of years ago.  It served as part of a game drive system: Paleoindian hunters would drive their prey along the wall to breaks.  The animals would pass through the break and either fall from a precipice or be speared by hunters hiding behind blinds.  According to Dr. LaBelle, people hiking the recreation trail can see this rock wall, and most likely never suspecting the antiquity of it.

One of Dr. LaBelle’s colleagues, Dr. James Benedict, has published many articles about these game drive systems.  High in the Front Range, he has identified over 50 rock-wall game drive systems existing above timberline ranging in age from the Paleoindian era (as long as 11,000 years ago) through Late Prehistoric time (from 2000 to about 200 years ago, give or take).  Eight of them are on Rollins Pass alone!  I’ve been inspired to carefully scan Google Earth for more Paleoindian marks on the landscape.  Maybe you will be, too.


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