U.S. Forest Service workers Mike Stites, right, and Andrew Dutt excavate a section of land on the edge of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. Artifacts were found during a six-day dig that are suspected of being between 8,000 and 9,000 years old.

Photo by Matt Stensland

U.S. Forest Service workers Mike Stites, right, and Andrew Dutt excavate a section of land on the edge of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. Artifacts were found during a six-day dig that are suspected of being between 8,000 and 9,000 years old.

Dig at Flat Tops Wilderness Area unveils early American artifacts

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Flat Tops dig

An archaeological dig at the Flat Tops Wilderness Area is helping answer questions about the people who lived there 8,500 years ago.

An archaeological dig at the Flat Tops Wilderness Area is helping answer questions about the people who lived there 8,500 years ago.

— An archaeological dig at the edge of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area has researchers thinking humans 8,500 years ago had an affinity for the area much like the species does today.

“Those high-alpine areas are one of the places where we think they came together,” said Mark Mitchell, research director for the nonprofit Paleo Cultural Research Group based in Denver. “A lot of their campgrounds are probably the same campgrounds we use today.”

Ancient spear points known to be 8,000 to 9,000 years old first were discovered in the area near the popular Devils Causeway trail in 1992. For the past six days, Mitchell and about a dozen U.S. Forest Service staff members and volunteers have been excavating five, 1-meter-square sections with the hopes of learning more about the ancient landscape and those who inhabited it.

“The only way to learn more is to look at the subsurface,” Mitchell said. “What we learned is that the land 8,500 years ago was this.”

The forest likely looked different and may have been inhabited by different species of trees.

As for the people living there, Mitchell said the Paleo-Indians would have had the exact same needs as modern humans such as shelter, food, fire and water. The groups also would have traveled with animals such as dogs, Mitchell said.

Humans are thought to have inhabited North America 20,000 years ago, Mitchell said, having crossed over to Alaska from Asia via a land bridge that once existed.

They are suspected of being nomadic hunters and gatherers, who typically traveled in groups of 10 to 12 people. Sometimes, they gathered in larger groups in certain areas, with the Flat Tops possibly being one of them.

In addition to spear points, the dig revealed rocks shavings, which are the byproduct of making tools. Workers think they found superheated dirt, which would signify an ancient fire pit. Charcoal also was found, which Mitchell said workers will be able to date with more precision after the field work is completed.

“A heck of a lot of the work happens afterward,” Mitchell said.

Workers also found an abundance of a type of red clay, which Mitchell said the Paleo-Indians used as body paint.

“That may have been the reason they came here,” Mitchell said.

Steamboat Springs U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Bridget Roth was one of the people helping with the dig.

She said the dig was important for several reasons. With the help of Paleo Cultural Research Group, the Forest Service was able to take on a project that otherwise might not have been possible. Members of the public were able to volunteer at the site, and the project will enable the Forest Service to build its heritage program, Roth said.

“The Paleo-Indian period is one of the lesser-understood time periods,” she said.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com

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