Around 13,000 years ago, Paleoindian hunters were making red ochre from iron-rich hematite collected from the western foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Red ochre had an important role in Paleoindian societies, and is associated with many campsites, kill sites, graves, caches – and notably, found in rock art. A hematite quarry site, now in southeastern Wyoming, is currently the only ancient quarry of its type recognized in North America. This site, known as Powars ll, intrigues me, since I have a special fondness for the surrounding region. During five summers in south-central Wyoming, I spent many weeks studying rocks for my graduate research project. Day after day, I wandered through the wild lands of that region, admiring the rocks, fossils, plants, and animals, plus a backdrop of expansive views overlain by billowing clouds and deep blue skies.
The Ancient Quarry in Wyoming
The hematite quarry Powars II, north of Laramie, has produced an abundant and diverse collection of worked stone and bone artifacts used for quarrying and weaponry production and repair. Archaeologists studying this site have identified dozens of Clovis projectile points – distinctive fluted points associated with the indigenous North American hunter-gatherer culture that flourished from roughly 13,400 to 12,700 years ago. Clovis points have characteristic grooves that run lengthwise along the flat sides of the point. Since the Clovis culture flourished at the end of the Pleistocene “Ice Age”, a vast supply of food was available to hunters, including the soon-to-be-extinct megafauna of mammoths, mastodons, and ground sloths.
The Powars II site is the only known site where archaeologists have found a large projectile point assemblage in context with red ochre procurement. A unique characteristic of the site is that almost all the Clovis points exhibit a type of damage that is typical of use during hunts. This suggests that the hunters collected points at kill sites and later left them at the quarry. Since many of the projectile points retain some amount of utility, the practice suggests ritualism related to hunting. For millenia, the first Americans followed traditions and activities that allowed them to be successful in their dynamic environment.
The distance the Paleoindians carried red ocher shows it was an important material that warranted considerable travel time or trade goods, plus it suggests that Clovis people roamed over large territories. The most highly valued ores were those with the deepest and richest reddish hues. At the La Prele Mammoth site near Douglas in Wyoming, hunters processed mammoth remains. In the camp that they left behind about 13,000 years ago, archaeologists have found red ochre nodules and floors with prominent red ochre stains, probably left by treated animal hides used for floor-coverings. The geochemical signature of this ocher fits with the Powars ll ocher quarry, approximately 60 miles (100 km) to the north. Powars ll ocher is also likely to be present at many other ancient sites in the American mid-continent.
A Long and Rich History
The historical record of red ochre mines extends back tens of thousands of years. Several of my blog posts describe aspects of this fascinating topic, from the Lion Cave in southern Africa, possibly the oldest mine known on Earth, to the underwater hematite mine discovered by divers in Yucatan caves, dating back about 12,000 years. (I list a few of the related posts below.)
Archaeologists recognize evidence of the use of red ochre much farther back in time. The record begins in Africa at least 300,000 years ago. In northern Europe, Neanderthals were using red ochre as early as 200,000 to 250,000 years ago.
Currently in North America, research at the mid-continent Powars ll quarry shows the complexity of activities associated with this site—indicators of the rich heritage of the indigenous people. Our world is a fascinating place!
LINKS TO RELATED BLOG POSTS
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Frison, G.C., Zeimens, G.M., Pelton, S.R., Walker, D.N., Stanford, D.J. and Kornfeld, M., 2018. Further insights into Paleoindian use of the Powars II Red Ocher Quarry (48PL330), Wyoming. American Antiquity, 83(3), pp.485-504.
Pelton, S.R., Becerra-Valdivia, L., Craib, A., Allaun, S., Mahan, C., Koenig, C., Kelley, E., Zeimens, G. and Frison, G.C., 2022. In situ evidence for Paleoindian hematite quarrying at the Powars II site (48PL330), Wyoming. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(20), p.e2201005119.
Stirn, M., 2023. High Plains Mammoth Hunters. Archaeology, January/February, pp. 40 – 45.
Roebroeks, W., Sier, M.J., Nielsen, T.K., De Loecker, D., Parés, J.M., Arps, C.E. and Mücher, H.J., 2012. Use of red ochre by early Neandertals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(6), pp.1889-1894.
Zarzycka, S.E., Surovell, T.A., Mackie, M.E., Pelton, S.R., Kelly, R.L., Goldberg, P., Dewey, J. and Kent, M., 2019. Long-distance transport of red ocher by Clovis foragers. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 25, pp.519-529.
Photo of hematite-rich banded iron formation from Wyoming, by James St. John, 2016 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hematite-rich_BIF_ventifact.jpg
Photo of Clovis points from the Rummells-Maske Site in Cedar County, Iowa, by Bill Whittaker, 2010. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Clovis_Rummells_Maske.jpg
Photo of hematite with a metallic luster and an earthy luster; both leave a reddish-brown streak on a ceramic plate, by KarlaPanchuk, 2015. File:Hematite streak plate.jpg – Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Barrier Canyon Style rock art in Canyonlands National Park, Utah, by R. Chambers, 2021