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UW Anthropology Professor Publishes Book About the First Coloradans

November 22, 2013

Scraping tools, bison bone and projectile points are all remnants that provide Marcel Kornfeld with clues to reconstruct a puzzle of how the earliest people of Middle Park in Colorado lived 13,000 years ago.

In September, Kornfeld, a professor in the University of Wyoming’s Department of Anthropology, published a book, titled “The First Rocky Mountaineers: Coloradans Before Colorado,” through the University of Utah Press.

The 336-page book is based on archaeological research in Colorado’s Middle Park, a high mountain basin initially encountered by Europeans in the early 1800s and occupied for centuries before by the Utes. The book is a pre-history of the region’s earliest people -- Paleo-Indians -- at the conclusion of the Ice Age.

“This book details more than 20 years of archaeological research in the high-altitude Middle Park, Colorado,” says Kornfeld, who has studied the area off and on since 1989. “Human occupation of the area began at least 13,000 years ago. In addition to the archaeology, the volume looks closely at the rigors of high-elevation adaptation for prehistoric hunter-gatherers.”

The earliest Coloradans coped with some of the most extreme conditions -- high elevations and low temperatures -- of any prehistoric population in North America, according to Kornfeld. In order to survive, they had to intensify their food production, construct shelters and make warm clothing. Middle Park, at its basin level, is approximately 7,200 feet above sea level, and rises to more than 13,000 feet above sea level at the Continental Divide.

“The archaeological record of these early Coloradans, while still meager, provides a wealth of information about life ways in the Rocky Mountain high country,” Kornfeld says. “This record provides a robust database for interpreting their life ways and unique adaptations.”

For example, these first inhabitants left a rich record of shelters, tools and projectile points, as well as food residue in the form of bison bone. These remnants all date between 8,000 and 13,000 years ago, Kornfeld says.

“I think they ate a variety of foods, everything from mice to bison, and a variety of plants, including Saskatoon serviceberries and bitterroot,” Kornfeld says. “We don’t have any evidence of them eating seeds, for which they would need grinding equipment that we don’t find.”

Areas in and around Middle Park provide evidence of bison kill sites, as well as kills of other game, Kornfeld says. Drive lines, marked by low rock piles, indicate where the Paleo-Indians guided bison This map, which appears in Marcel Kornfeld’s book, shows the location of Middle Park, Colo., the focus of this archaeological study.and, perhaps, elk and bighorn sheep, to landscapes where they could be more easily hunted and killed. Projectile points, knapped from stone, also were discovered in these areas, indicating these were used to dispatch the animals.

The discovery of bone needles and stone scrapers has led archaeologists to conclude that Paleo-Indians made sawn clothing.

“Undoubtedly, they also used bison hides, from which they could have made capes or coats,” he says. “I suspect they also used deer and sheep hides to make clothing. Deer and bighorn sheep skins are far lighter, and sheep pelage makes for excellent insulation.”

Although there are no visible structures in Middle Park, these early people most likely lived in tent-like shelters, an inference based on distribution of artifacts found in the vicinity of hearths. When people throw things away, these items typically tend to pile up at walls of a domicile, Kornfeld says.

“Several of my collaborators have shown this pattern at one of the sites we investigated,” he says.

The high-altitude conditions of Middle Park are hypoxic, which means there is a lack of oxygen for living things. In animals, as well as humans, this minimally results in shortness of breath, but more serious consequences can lead to death if the person or animal does not return to lower elevations, Kornfeld says. Modern mountaineers often equip themselves with oxygen or other paraphernalia to prevent the adverse effects of high altitudes, he says.

Biological adaptation to such altitudes in other world regions resulted in physical adaptations such as barrel chests, a condition that results in more efficient oxygen use, Kornfeld says. Middle Park Paleo-Indians might have had the same physique, but Kornfeld says his research group has not found any skeletal remains to make that determination.

Stressors on the human body in hypoxic environments are exacerbated by cold temperatures. This results in greater caloric expenditure and, thus, requires increased caloric capture. For Middle Park Coloradans, Kornfeld argues, that caloric capture was increased through intensification of food production, especially through processing of animal products.

“When you live at that height, you have to cope with biological stressors,” Kornfeld says. “The body must adapt to these conditions.”

The book, which Kornfeld says he wrote to be accessible to a broad audience as well as be usable in the classroom, is available on Amazon for $58.50. The book has garnered some good early reviews.

“(This is) a significant contribution. Rocky Mountain archaeology long received short shrift, yet now that more and more scientists are engaging in it, we are learning much more than we could have imagined a half-century ago about the range of forager adaptations in North American settings,” wrote Bonnie Pitblado, the Robert E. and Virginia Bell Endowed Professor in Anthropological Archaeology at the University of Oklahoma, and author of “Late Paleoindian Occupation of the Southern Rocky Mountains.”

During nearly 40 years of research, Kornfeld has written 10 books and numerous articles about Rocky Mountain and Plains archaeology and prehistory. He works closely with avocational archaeologists throughout North America.

“Prehistory of the first Americans in Middle Park is a part of the human story of flexibility, resilience and adaptation to changing environments through a uniquely human trait -- culture,” Kornfeld says. “We may never know the entire story, but every part of it has lessons as we venture into the future.”

Marcel Kornfeld, a UW anthropology professor, with his book, titled “The First Rocky Mountaineers: Coloradans Before Colorado.”

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