Prehistory of Colorado

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This article is about geological origins and prehistoric people of Colorado. For outline of early Colorado life, see Outline of Colorado prehistory.

Prehistory of Colorado provides an overview of the activities that occurred prior to Colorado's recorded history. Colorado experienced cataclysmic geological events over billions of years, which shaped the land and resulted in diverse ecosystems. The ecosystems included several ice ages, tropical oceans, and a massive volcanic eruption. Then, ancient layers of earth rose to become the Rocky Mountains.

Before man, the dinosaur, mammoth, mastodon, camelops and giant bison foraged for food in a verdant land. During the Ice Age Summer humans walked into the present Colorado area as they followed and hunted large animals.

The ancient hunters, the Paleo-Indians, evolved into modern Native American nations. The first people in Colorado were nomadic, following and hunting large mammals using the Clovis point. As Megafauna became extinct, people adapted by hunting smaller animals, gathering wild plants, and cultivating food, such as maize. As the natives became more sedentary, there were significant technological and social advances, including basket, pottery, and tool making and creation of permanent structures and communities. Trading with other indigenous people expanded the number and type of material items used for material goods, such as sea shells, stones for jewelry and tools, pottery and food.


Prehistoric people[edit]

Paleo-Indian period[edit]

The period immediately preceding the first humans coming into Colorado was the Ice Age Summer starting about 16,000 years ago. For the next five thousand years the landscape would change dramatically and most of the large animals would become extinct. Receding and melting glaciers created the Plum and Monument Creeks, the Castle Rock mesas and unburied the Rocky Mountains. Large mammals, such as the mastodon, mammoth, camels, giant sloths, cheetah, bison antiquus and horses roamed the land.[8]:5

Sites for the early Paleo-Indian period are found on the plains (eastern half of the state), but later in the period, there are sites found in both the mountains and plains of Colorado.[9]

Restoration of a Columbian Mammoth
Pre-Clovis culture

Pre-Clovis period is defined by Paleo-Indian hunting before the use of Clovis points.[10]:53–54 Lamb Spring in Littleton, with mammoth bones dated 14,140 to 12,140 years ago and hunting by use of stone tools other than Clovis points, is an example. Other examples include Dutton and Selby in the far eastern edge of Colorado.[10]:54–57

Clovis culture

There were a few Paleo-Indian cultures, distinctive by the size of the tools they used and the animals they hunted. People in the first, Clovis complex period, had large tools to hunt the megafauna animals of the early Paleo-Indian period.[8]:5 There are a few pre-Clovis Paleo-Indian kill sites, before the use of Clovis points,[10]:53–54 Lamb Spring in Littleton, with mammoth bones dated 14,140 to 12,140 years ago, is an example. Other examples include Dutton and Selby in the far eastern edge of Colorado.[10]:54–57 A key Clovis culture site is the Dent Site discovered in 1932 in Weld County, the first site to provide evidence that men and mammoth co-existed and that man hunted mammoth on the North American continent.[10]:58–67

A group of images by Eadweard Muybridge, set to motion to illustrate the movement of the bison
Folsom culture

With time, the climate warmed again and lakes and savannas receded. The land became drier, food became less abundant, and as a result of the giant mammals became extinct. People adapted by hunting bison and smaller mammals and gathering wild plants to supplement their diet.[11] A new cultural complex was born, the Folsom tradition,[2]:30 with smaller projectile points to hunt smaller animals.[8]:5 Aside from hunting smaller mammals, people adapted by gathering wild plants to supplement their diet.[11] Examples of the Folsom tradition in Colorado are the Lindenmeier Site, Olsen-Chubbuck Bison Kill Site and Jones-Miller Bison Kill Sites. Aside from other sites on the Plains, there are also Folsom sites in Middle Park and the San Luis Valley of Colorado.[10]:70–78

Plano cultures

Plano cultures existed from about 10,000 to 7,000 and are distinguished by their use of long, lanceolate and unfluted blades. Some of the best documented Plano sites are located in Colorado.[10]:79 Cody complex is a Plano culture that used unfluted projectile points and other tools like the Folsom and Clovis cultures from about 9,000 to 7,000 B.C.[10]:82–83 Olsen-Chubbuck Bison Kill Site, Jurgens Site and Lamb Spring are Cody complex sites. Hell Gap complex, also a Plano culture, from 10,060 to 9,600 before present (roughly 8,050 to 7,590 B.C.) was named for the Hell Gap, Wyoming archaeological site. It is distinguished by its long stemmed, convex and unfluted Hell Gap points. Jones-Miller Bison Kill Site is the only Hell Gap location in Colorado.[10]:79

Other Paleo-Indian sites are Roxborough State Park Archaeological District and, with artifacts from the Goshen complex / Plainview complex, Phillips-Williams Fork Reservoir Site.

Archaic period[edit]

The Archaic period began about 7,000 years ago. The bison antiquus had become extinct, like the other megafauna, and people became reliant on smaller game, such as deer, antelope and rabbits, and gathering wild plants. Their tool kits became larger, with greater reliance on manos and metates to grind food and changes in weapons for hunting, such as notched projectile points. The used plant fibers to make cordage, nets or traps to catch small animals and baskets to gather food. The people moved seasonally to hunting and gathering sites. They lived in rock shelters, such as south-facing shelters that were warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and open air campsites. Archaic people roamed the plains and the mountains, although hunting and gathering sufficient food to feed the band of people was more difficult in the higher altitude ecological climates. Late in the Archaic period, about 200-500 A.D., corn was introduced into the diet and pottery-making became an occupation for storing and carrying food.[10]:95–99[12]

Archaic cultures:

Apex complex

Apex complex is a cultural tradition of the Middle Archaic period, distinguished by Apex projectile points dated from about 3000 to 500 BC. The type site is the Magic Mountain Site near Apex Creek. The Irwins, archaeologists at Magic Mountain, believe that the artifacts are from ancestors of Puebloan people of the American southwest.[13]:33–34

Archaic–Early Basketmaker Era

Archaic–Early Basketmaker Era (7000 - 1500 BC) was an cultural period of ancestors to the Ancient Pueblo People. They were distinguished from other Archaic people of the Southwest by their basketry which was used to gather and store food. They became reliant on wild seeds, grasses, nuts and fruit for food and changed their movement patterns and lifestyle by maximizing the edible wild food and small game within a geographical region. Manos and metates began to be used to process seeds and nuts. With the extinction of megafauna, hunters adapted their tools, using spears with smaller projectile points and then atlatl and darts. They lived in simple dwellings made of wood, brush and earth.[14][15][16][17]

Mount Albion complex

Mount Albion complex was an early Archaic culture (about 4050 to 3050 BC), distinguished by the Mount Albion corner-notched projectile. It is the best known early Archaic culture in Colorado.[18]:xlvii,11,488[19] Hungry Whistler Site, a kill and butchering site, at 11,500 feet (3,500 m) is the type site dated from about 3850 to 3060 B.C.[19] LoDaisKa Site, Magic Mountain Site, Franktown Cave and Mount Albion are examples of the Mount Albion complex.[20]

Examples of Archaic sites are Colorado Millennial Site, Franktown Cave, LoDaisKa Site, Magic Mountain Site, Picture Canyon, Roxborough State Park Archaeological District, and Trinchera Cave Archeological District.

The Rio Grande region


Hunter-gatherer cultures[edit]

Apishapa Phase

Apishapa Phase was first identified in the Lower Apishapa canyon and is distinguished by stone or slab constructed structures, cord-wrapped pottery and small projectile points. They were a tradition of hunter gatherers who sometimes farmed and lived in northern New Mexico or southern Colorado in rockshelters, single or multi-room stone or slab structures or in campsites.[18]:4 There are at least 68 Apishapa sites on the Chaquaqua Plateau in southeastern Colorado.[13]:89 Some sites where Apishapa archaeological evidence has been found include Franktown Cave, Picture Canyon and Trinchera Cave Archeological District.

Dismal River culture

The Dismal River culture was first seen in the Dismal River area of Nebraska. Dated between 1650-1750 A.D., it is different than other prehistoric Central Plains and Woodland traditions of the western Plains. The people were hunter-gatherers who also cultivated food and make their own distinctive Dismal River pottery. Dismal River villages often had 15-20 round dwellings roughly 25 feet (7.6 m) in diameter. Plains Apache were linked to the culture.[10]:234,236[18]:212, 213, 768[21] Some Colorado sites include Cedar Point Village and Franktown Cave

Panhandle culture

Panhandle culture (AD 1200-1400) is a culture of the southern High Plains, primarily located in the panhandle and west central Oklahoma and the northern half of the Texas Panhandle. Most of the sites are centered around the Canadian River or its tributaries, primarily Antelope Creek and also Cottonwood Creek, Dixon Creek, Tarbox Creek and also on the Archie King Ranch. Distinguishing characteristics of the Panhandle culture are: great similarity to the Central Plains complexes; some evidence of trading or influence of Southwestern pueblo cultures; and single or multi-roomed stone structures.[13]:87 For Colorado sites, see Trinchera Cave Archeological District as well as the Apishapa culture and Sopris Phase articles.

Sopris Phase

Sophris Phase (AD 1000-1250) was first found in southeastern Colorado, near the present town of Trinidad. Although the culture appeared to have been greatly influenced by pueblo people, such as the Taos Pueblo and trade in the Upper Rio Grande, the Sopris culture was generally a hunter-gatherer tradition.[13]:94–95 See Trinchera Cave Archeological District

Plains Woodland

The Plains Woodland period, or Ceramic period, began in the Plains about AD 0 with the defining distinction of the creation of cordwrapped pottery, development of settlement areas, and use of smaller projectile points for hunting smaller game and/or bow and arrow technology.[13]:41 Sites include Colorado Millennial Site, Franktown Cave, LoDaisKa Site, Magic Mountain Site, Picture Canyon, and Roxborough State Park Archaeological District

Basketmaker and Ancient Puebloan people[edit]

Early Basketmaker II Era

The Early Basketmaker II Era (1500 BC - AD 50) was the first Post-Archaic cultural period of Ancient Pueblo People. The era began with the cultivation of maize in the northern American southwest, although there was not a dependence upon agriculture until about 500 BC.[22]

They were named "Basketmakers" for their skill in making baskets for storing food, covering with pitch to heat water, and using to toast seeds and nuts. They wove bags, sandals, belts out of yucca plants and leaves - and strung beads. They occasionally lived in dry caves where they dug pits and lined with stones to store food.[23]:27–30[24]

Late Basketmaker II Era

During the Late Basketmaker II Era (AD 50 to 500), people living in the Four Corners region were introduced to maize and basketry through Mesoamerican trading. Able to have greater control of their diet through cultivation, the hunter-gatherers lifestyle became more sedentary as small disperse groups began cultivating maize and squash. They also continued to hunt and gather wild plants.[23]:27–30

Basketmaker III Era

The next era, Basketmaker III Era (AD 500 to 750) resulted in the introduction of pottery which reduced the number of baskets that they made and eliminated the creation of woven bags. The simple, gray pottery allowed them a better tool for cooking and storage. Beans were added to the cultivated diet. Bows and arrows made hunting easier and thus the acquisition of hides for clothing. Turkey feathers were woven into blankets and robes. On the rim of Mesa Verde, small groups built pit houses which were built several feet below the surface with elements suggestive of the introduction of celebration rituals.[23]:33–37

Pueblo I Era

Pueblo buildings were built during the Pueblo I Era (AD 750 to 900) with stone, wooden posts, and adobe. The buildings were located more closely together and reflected deepening religious celebration. Towers were built near kivas and likely used for look-outs. Pottery became more versatile, not just for cooking, but now included pitchers, ladles, bowls, jars and dishware for food and drink. White pottery with black designs emerged, the pigments coming from plants. Water management and conservation techniques, including the use of reservoirs and silt-retaining dams also emerged during this period.[23]:39–45

Pueblo II Era

During the Pueblo II period (AD 900-1150) there was an increase in population that resulted in creation of more than 10,000 sites in 150 years. Since much of the land was arid, the people supplemented their diet by hunting, foraging and trading pottery for food.[25] By the end of the period, there were two-story dwellings made primarily of stone masonry, the presence of towers, and family and community kivas.[23]:39–45[26][27]

Pueblo III Era

Rohn and Ferguson, authors of Puebloan ruins of the Southwest, state that during the Pueblo III period (AD 1150-1300) there was a significant community change. Moving in from dispersed farmsteads into community centers at pueblos canyon heads or cliff dwellings on canyon shelves. Population peaked between 1200 to 1250 to more than 20,000 in the Mesa Verde region.[28] By 1300 Ancient Pueblo People abandoned their settlements, as the result of climate changes and food shortage, and south to villages in Arizona and New Mexico,[28] where people lived through the Pueblo IV Era and the Pueblo V Era, with the life of modern Puebloan people.

Late prehistoric Native Americans[edit]

Apachean tribes ca. 18th century: WA – Western Apache, N – Navajo, Ch – Chiricahua, M – Mescalero, J – Jicarilla, L – Lipan, Pl – Plains Apache
Natives of North (1st row) America Inuit of Labrador, Inuit woman of Greenland, Apache, (2nd row) Navajo, Koskimo woman of Vancouver, Cheyenne, (3rd row) Mandan, Ute, Blackfoot, (4th row) Woman Moki chief, Nez Percé, Wichita woman

After AD 1300 hunter-gathers, ancestors of the Ute and Navajo, moved into the southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah and came to inhabit the region.[29] The Ute arrived in Colorado by the 1600s and occupied much of the present state of Colorado. They were followed by the Comanches from the south in the 1700s, and then the Arapaho and Cheyenne from the plains who then dominated the plains of Colorado. The Cheyenne, Arapaho and Comanche were the largest group of indigenous people in Colorado at the time of contact with settlers.[30]

Native American people[edit]


The Apache presence in Colorado includes the Jicarilla Apache and Dismal River cultures. The Jicarilla Apaches are one of the Athabaskan linguistic groups that migrated out of Canada, by 1525 CE,[31] and lived in what they considered their land bounded by four sacred Rivers in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado: the Rio Grande, Pecos River, Arkansas River, and the Canadian River containing sacred mountain peaks and ranges. They also ranged out into the plains of northwestern Texas and the western portions of Oklahoma and Kansas. The Jicarilla Apache were hunter-gatherers, hunting primarily buffalo through the 17th century and thereafter added smaller game to their diet. Women gathered berries, agave, honey, onions, potatoes, nuts and seeds. Some bands practiced seasonal agriculture along the upper Arkansas River, cultivating squash, beans, pumpkins, melons, peas, wheat, and corn.[32][33][34][35]


It unclear how and when the Arapaho entered the Great Plains, they most likely lived in Minnesota and North Dakota before entering the Plains. Before European expansion into the area, the Arapahos were living on the plains in South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, and Kansas. They were close allies of the Cheyenne people. In winter the tribe split up into camps sheltered in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in present-day Colorado. In late spring they moved out onto the Plains into large camps to hunt buffalo gathering for the birthing season. In mid-summer Arapahos traveled into the Parks region of Colorado to hunt mountain herds, returning onto the Plains in late summer to autumn for ceremonies and for collective hunts of herds gathering for the rutting season.


The Cheyenne arrived in the Colorado area shortly after the Arapaho, spoke both of the Algonquian languages, lived on the plains east of the Rocky Mountains with the Arapaho. The Cheyenne and Arapaho banded together against the Comanche, Kiowa, Shoshone and Ute.[30][36]


The Comanche arrived in the Colorado area from the Great Basin and northern plains. They spoke a Shoshone language and by the time of contact with settlers were located in southeastern Colorado, south of the Arkansas River. To the north of the river were the Arapaho and Cheyenne. Allied with the Ute, they fought against the Apache. Their limited archaeological artifacts include a flat-bottomed pottery known as Intermountain Tradition or Shooshonean pottery, like the ceramics found at Graever Cave and Roberts Buffalo Jump.[10]:244–248[30]

Navajo people

The ancestors to the Navajo were one of the tribes of the southern division of the Athabaskan language family that migrated south from Alaska and northwestern Canada, most likely traveling through the Great Basin.[37] The Navajo ancestors were in the area after AD 1300, but at least by the early 1500s.[29]


The Pawnee ranged through the Great Plains and were first documented by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado when he met a Pawnee chief from Nebraska in 1541. Regarding Colorado, they hunted bison on plains of eastern Colorado.[30]


Ute hunter-gatherer ancestors migrated east from California in about the 12th century and before the 17th century migrated from Utah and the Great Basin to occupy most of Colorado. They were prehistoric hunters of western Colorado and ranged east to the Great Plains and in canyons and mountains of eastern Utah and Colorado.[29][30][38][39]

The Ute are the only Native American group with reservations in Colorado.

Occupation sequences[edit]

About A.D. 1700 the Ute and Apache shared the present state of Colorado, the Ute primarily and steadfastly in the Rocky Mountains and west and the Apache on the eastern plains. The Comanche entered the eastern half of Colorado early in the 1700s and with the Ute pressed the Apache to the southeastern portion of Colorado between about 1700-1750. By about 1820 the Comanche territory was the eastern part of the state. Between about 1820 and 1830 the Arapaho and Cheyenne, who had arrived from the northeast, pressed down the eastern side of Colorado pressuring the Comanche to the south, below the Arkansas River.[10]:249

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gadd, Ben (2008). "Geology of the Rocky Mountains and Columbias". Retrieved 2010-01-01. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Johnson, Kirk R.; Raynolds, Robert G. (2006) Ancient Denvers: Scenes from the Past 300 Million Years of the Colorado Front Range. Fulcrum Publishing for Denver Museum of Nature and Science ISBN 1-55591-554-X.
  3. ^ Lexicon of Canadian Geologic Units. "Fox Hills Formation". Retrieved 2010-02-01. 
  4. ^ Eldridge, G.H., 1888, On some stratigraphical and structural features of the country about Denver, Colorado: Colorado. Scientific Society Proceedings, v. 3, pt. 1, p. 86 118.
  5. ^ Shroba, R.R., and Carrara, P.E., 1996, Surficial geologic map of the Rocky Flats environmental technology site and vicinity, Jefferson and Boulder Counties, Colorado: U.S. Geological Survey Miscellaneous Investigations Series Map, I 2526.
  6. ^ King, C. 1876. Report of the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel. U.S.Geographical and Geological Survey.
  7. ^ a b Kruger, Fraces Alley; Meaney, Carron A. (1995). Explore Colorado: A Naturalist's Notebok. Photography by John Fielder. Englewood, Colorado: Westcliff Publishers and Denver Museum of Natural History. 1-56579-124-X.
  8. ^ a b c Waldman, Carl. (2009) [1985]. Atlas of the North American. New York:Facts on File. ISBN 978-0-8160-6858-6.
  9. ^ Stiger, Mark. (2001). Hunter-Gatherer Archaeology of the Colorado High Country. University Press of Colorado. p. 169. ISBN 978-0-87081-910-0.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Cassells, E. Steve. (1997). The Archeology of Colorado, Revised Edition. Boulder, Colorado: Johnson Books. pp. 53-54. ISBN 1-55566-193-9.
  11. ^ a b Griffin-Pierce, Trudy. (2010). The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Southwest. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 130 ISBN 978-0-231-12790-5.
  12. ^ Kipfer, Barbara Ann. (2000). Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology. New York:Plenum Publisher. p. 341. ISBN 0-306-46158-7.
  13. ^ a b c d e Gunnerson, James H. (1987). Archaeology of the High Plains. Denver: United States Forest Service.
  14. ^ Archaic: 5500 to 500 B.C.- Overview. Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. 2011. Retrieved 10-18-2011.
  15. ^ Time-Life Book Editors. (1993) [1992] The First Americans. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books. pp. 29, 30. ISBN 0-8094-9400-0.
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  21. ^ The Dismal River Culture.. Nebraska Studies. Retrieved November 26, 2011.
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  23. ^ a b c d e Wenger, Gilbert R. (1991) [1980]. The Story of Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde Museum Association, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. ISBN 0-937062-15-4.
  24. ^ Rohn, Ferguson p. 148
  25. ^ Stuart, David E.; Moczygemba-McKinsey, Susan B. (2000) Anasazi America: Seventeen Centuries on the Road from Center Place. University of New Mexico Press. pp. 56-57. ISBN 0-8263-2179-8.
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  28. ^ a b Pueblo III - Overview. Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. 2011. Retrieved 9-27-2011.
  29. ^ a b c The Post-Pueblo Period: A.D. 1300 to Late 1700s. Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. 2011. Retrieved 9-26-2011.
  30. ^ a b c d e Indians of Colorado. The William E. Hewitt Institute for History and Social Science Education. University of Northern Colorado. Retrieved December 7, 2011.
  31. ^ "Spanish Relations with the Apache Nations east of the Rio Grande", Jeffrey D. Carlisle, B.S., M.A., University of North Texas, May 2001, pages 3, 45-46.
  32. ^ "Spanish Relations with the Apache Nations east of the Rio Grande", Jeffrey D. Carlisle, B.S., M.A., University of North Texas, May 2001, pages 4-5.
  33. ^ Velarde Tiller, Veronica E. (2011) Culture and Customs of the Apache Indians. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood of ABC-CLIO. p. 28. ISBN 978-0-313-36452-5.
  34. ^ Pritzker, Barry M. (2000). A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 12-14. ISBN 978-0-19-513877-1.
  35. ^ Greenwald, Emily. (2002). Reconfiguring the reservation: The Nez Perces, Jicarilla Apache and the Dawes Act. University of New Mexico Press. p. 97. ISBN 0-8263-2408-8.
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