Excavations that concluded in 2020 have confirmed an ancient mine in eastern Wyoming that was allegedly used by humans to produce red ochre 13,000 years ago! It is now officially the oldest known mine of any sort in the Americas, and the findings have been published in the May issue of the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
An Ancient Origins report from 2020 had covered the previous oldest Paleoindian mine find from 12,500-10,000 years ago in Mexico, off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. The research for that discovery was published in the leading journal Sciences Advances and focused on how red ochre was so valuable to the Paleoindians of the early Americas that they were willing to risk their lives to collect it.
Lead author and Wyoming State Archaeologist Spencer Pelton has been working at the site since 2016, when he was a University of Wyoming doctoral student. Several UW students and researchers were part of the excavation team, who were able to corroborate the theories posited by legendary Wyoming archaeologist George Carr Frison. Frison had begun research at the site in 1986, and would incidentally pass away as the excavations completed in mid-2020. He has also been listed as a co-author on the paper.
UW Ph.D. student Chase Mahan inspects an artifact at the Powars II archaeological site in 2020. Mahan is one of the co-authors of a new paper that confirms the site at Sunrise in Platte County is the oldest documented red ochre mine – and likely the oldest known mine of any sort – in North and South America. (Spencer Pelton/ University of Wyoming )
The Significance of Red Ochre for Paleoindians
In a press release by UW Pelton was quoted as saying
“We have unequivocal evidence for use of this site by early Paleoindians as long as 12,840 years ago and continuing by early Americans for about 1,000 years. It’s gratifying that we were finally able to confirm the significance of the Powars II site after decades of work by so many, including Dr. Frison, who learned of the site in the early 1980s and was involved in the research until his death.”
Paleoindians were the first occupiers of the American continent during the waning of the Late Pleistocene period. Dominant historical narrative pegs the big animal-hunters as having crossed the Bering Strait from northern Asia (eastern Siberia and present-day Alaska), roughly 17,000 years ago.
Red ochre or hematite was of huge value to the Paleoindian societies as it provided a high utility function. It was used as a pigment in many rituals, evidence for which has been found at ancient graves, campsites, kill sites, and caches scattered over the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. The same research from Yucatan in 2020 had argued that red ochre also had value as an antiseptic, sunscreen, vermin repellent, in funerals, and for artistic decoration.
Powars II Site: Quarrying and Extraction in the Oldest Mine in the Americas
The Powars II site is the only red ochre quarry identified in the North American archaeological record north of southern Mexico – and one of only five such quarries identified in all of the Americas. Also known as 48PL330, located near Sunrise, Wyoming, “it is a significant Paleoindian site in the Hartville Uplift area of eastern Wyoming. Intensive red ochre mining took place at Powars II, as indicated by Paleoindian materials in direct association with a natural hematite deposit”, writes Michael D. Stafford in Geoarchaeology in 2002.
From this round of excavations, and others, a complete Clovis point was recovered, along with other projectile points, tools, and shell beads. Pelton led one of many follow up excavations between 2017 and 2020, where a 6-meter (19 feet) by 1 meter (3.2 feet) trench was discovered. Bisecting a quarry, it yielded thousands of Paleoindian artifacts, well-preserved animal bones, and antlers. It was revealed that the bones and antlers were used to extract red ochre from the quarry.
A clovis point discovered at the Powars II site, the oldest known mine in the Americas. (Spencer Pelton/ University of Wyoming )
Named after the city of Clovis, New Mexico, where they were first discovered en masse in 1929, clovis points are fluted projectile points and a distinctive feature of prehistoric Paleoamerican culture.
“Beyond its status as a quarry, the Powars II artifact assemblage is itself one of the densest and most diverse of any thus far discovered in the early Paleoindian record of the Americas,” Pelton says. “The site contains over 30 chipped stone tools per square meter, some of the oldest canid remains from an American archaeological site and rare or unique artifacts, among other distinctions.”
Pelton says, “The site contains over 30 chipped stone tools per square meter.” ( Pelton et al. PNAS 2022 )
The distribution of evidence indicated the use of the quarry in two distinct primary periods – first as long as 12,480 years ago, in which apart from extracting the red ochre with bones and antlers, there was also production and repairing of weaponry. The second phase would come roughly after a century, with human occupation for the mining of the precious pigment and deposition of artifacts.
The researchers expect that further excavations are likely to reveal even more artifacts and will help shed light on the vibrancy of the Paleoindians and their cultural practices.
By Sahir Pandey