Facebook Twitter



BLUFF, San Juan County (10,000 years B.C.) - A cool breeze blew out of the north, bringing with it the unmistakable message that the drenching winter rains would soon come. He preferred the rains of this red canyon country to the frigid cold of the icy north.

Tamo watched as a female mammoth wandered slowly out of a patch of blue spruce. Rain had been scarce, and dry branches cracked beneath her weight. A baby mammoth stayed obediently hidden by the foliage.Still too young to hunt, Tamo hid alone in pines on a forested promontory overlooking what later inhabitants would name the San Juan River. Somewhere below, Tamo's two brothers, their father, an uncle and several cousins lay waiting for the mammoths to forage their way into the trap.

The winds on this day were favorable. With fire and spears, the hunters would drive the massive, tusked creatures into a bog along the river, a capture that would ensure meat for the journey ahead.

It had been many days since Tamo's stomach had not growled from hunger.

The boy and his clan, 21 in number now, had followed the river all summer, pursuing the increasingly wary mammoths. There were fewer mammoths than when grandfather had hunted. Or his father.

Tamo remembered with fascination the stories told around the evening campfire - tales of a long-distant time and long-forgotten generations, a time when there was scarcely a season of warmth, a time when the mammoth roamed in larger herds.

Tonight Tamo and his family would eat well.

(BX) (BX) (BX)

When Utahns think of southern Utah's ancient inhabitants, they generally conjure up images of cliff-dwelling Anasazi or maybe even archaic farmers of 2,000 years ago.

But recent scientific research into early man in Utah is revealing startling new evidence that Ice Age hunters, or Paleo-Indians as they are officially called, roamed southeastern Utah perhaps as early as 13,000 years ago.

"There was probably one band of 15 to 20 hunters in southeastern Utah," says William Davis, an expert on Paleo-Indians and owner of Abajo Archaeology in Bluff. "They were nomadic, appearing to have kept to the river valleys in search of large mammals."

If Davis, or anyone else for that matter, had claimed 10 years ago that Ice Age man had occupied southern Utah, they would have been laughed out of the profession. Utah's leading expert on Pleistocene man had boldly predicted that, because of the harsh geology and climate, evidences of early man would not be found in southern Utah.

"Obviously he was wrong," Davis said.

Research into early southern Utah man is still in its infancy, but archaeologists, paleontologists and other scientists are piece by piece assembling a fascinating puzzle of what life in Utah was like about 11,000 B.C.

"Until fairly recently, we had a lot of isolated projectile points in southeastern Utah but no sites that included their tools," Davis said. "We could assume by the presence of projectile points they were here, but we didn't have actual Paleo-Indian sites."

That changed in 1984.

Paleo-Indian research (all inhabitants from 12,500 B.C. to 8,000 B.C. are classified as Paleo-Indian) in southeastern Utah has been focused on two recently discovered sites: a Folsom site discovered in 1984 that probably dates to about 8,000 B.C. and a Clovis site that probably dates to 9,000-10,000 B.C.

The Clovis hunters are named after a site near Clovis, N.M., where the remains of a mammoth were found with projectile points and other evidence showing the animal had been killed by man. The Folsom people are named after a site near Folsom, N.M., for similar reasons.

The Clovis culture was distinguished by the migratory mammoth hunters who developed a unique projectile point. The later Folsom culture had smaller, more elongated projectile points and hunted slightly smaller mammals such as the ancient bison.

The discovery of such early archaeological sites in Utah shattered the long-held belief that early man did not venture into the area.

Southern Utah's Lime Ridge Clovis site yielded a cache of more than 200 distinctive stone tools that included scraping instruments, bores, stone knives and wood-working tools. Just south of the town of Green River, on the river's banks, a large cache of Folsom tools were found. Scientists call it the Montgomery site.

Unfortunately, both the Clovis and Folsom tools were discovered lying on bedrock that, along with the lack of charcoal samples, prevented scientists from using Carbon-14 techniques to date the tools.

According to Davis, the early Utahns were most likely mammoth hunters who roamed far and wide in search of mammoths, mastodons and other large mam-mals. Obsidian points found in the mammoth skeleton in Clovis, N.M., have been traced to the Milford, Beaver County, area. Points found in Oklahoma have been traced to the Yellowstone area.

The prehistoric hunters "were tremendously mobile," Davis said. "They were probably very territorial, but their territories were very large. And they traded extensively."

Scientists believe that within 1,000 years of man's arrival in North America (apparently about 14,000 years ago), more than 100 species of large animals had been hunted to extinction with spears and fire. In southeastern Utah, the mammoth disappeared, as did the Harrison mountain goat, sloth, ancient horse and camel.

By about 9,000 B.C., all large mammals had disappeared from the region. As a result, man adopted a hunter-gatherer lifestyle geared around smaller game. By 500 B.C., man had domesticated corn and beans.

The Lime Ridge and Montgomery sites confirmed the presence of man but did little to explain what the environment in Pleistocene Utah was like. A clearer understanding of that is emerging not through ancient tools and fossils but through scientific analysis of pack rat droppings and mammoth dung.

According to researchers, the climate in southeastern Utah was much different during the late Pleistocene from what it is today. Where the region now gets 8 to 9 inches of rain annually, the area anciently received 15 to 20 inches of rain.

"The summers were very dry and the winters very wet - a climate agreeable to high-altitude vegetation," said Davis. "The polar jet stream shifted downward, causing heavy rains in the winter."

That type of climate affected what kinds of vegetation grew at the lower elevations. Some 13,000 years ago, limber pines, blue spruce and Douglas fir were common at elevations as low as 5,000 feet. Those species thrived in the wet winters and dry summers.

But as the climate gradually began changing to wetter summers and drier winters (about 11,000 years ago), those species gradually disappeared from the lower elevations. They are found now at the 9,000-foot elevation in southeastern Utah's Abajo Mountains.

The fir and spruce have since been replaced by pinyon, gamble oak and ponderosa pine - species not found in the late-Pleistocene, but which thrive in the summer rains.

About 11,000 years ago, the Holocene era dawned on the Colorado Plateau. As the jet stream shifted north, rainfall was distributed more seasonally and the types of vegetation changed dramatically. By 8,000 to 7,000 years ago, the climate and vegetation approached what is found in the area today. "It hasn't changed at all from about 4,000 years ago," Davis said.

Research in Utah's ancient climate has been spearheaded by Julio Betancourt from the University of Arizona and Larry Agenbroad from Northern Arizona University.

Betancourt has been studying pack rat droppings found in a cave three miles up Cottonwood Canyon near Bluff that have been Carbon-14 dated to 13,000 years ago. His research focuses on determining ancient plant life by studying pollens.

Agenbroad has been studying mammoth dung from Bechaan Cave and Cowboy Cave in southern Utah. The dung tells scientists what the mammoths were eating, allowing researchers to reconstruct the Pleistocene environmental conditions at the time the first Utahns tracked the beasts through the canyons of southern Utah.