Research confirms that the Paleoindian site in eastern Wyoming is the oldest mine in the Americas
Archaeological digs led by the Wyoming State Archaeologist and involving researchers from the University of Wyoming have confirmed that an ancient mine in eastern Wyoming was used by humans to produce red ocher there. is nearly 13,000 years old.
This makes the Powars II site at Sunrise in Platte County the oldest documented red ocher mine – and probably the oldest known mine of any kind – in all of North and South America. The excavations, completed shortly before the 2020 death of famed UW archaeologist George Frison, confirmed theories he put forward following research he began at the site in 1986.
The findings appear in “In situ evidence for Paleoindian hematite quarrying at the Powars II site (48PL330), Wyoming,” an article published May 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
The lead author of the paper is Wyoming state archaeologist Spencer Pelton, who became involved with Project Powars II in 2016 while a doctoral student at UW.
“We have unequivocal evidence of use of this site by early Paleoindians 12,840 years ago and continues by early Americans for approximately 1,000 years,” Pelton said. “It is gratifying that we have finally been able to confirm the significance of the Powars II site after decades of work by so many people, including Dr Frison, who discovered the site in the early 1980s and was involved in research to his death.”
In fact, Frison — who died in September 2020 as the only UW faculty member ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences — is listed as a co-author on the new paper. Other contributors were George Zeimens, executive director of the Sunrise Historic and Prehistoric Preservation Society; Erin Kelley, UW graduate and staff member of the Wyoming State Archaeologist’s Office; and UW Ph.D. students Sarah Allaun, Alexander Craib, Chase Mahan and Charles Koenig.
Red ochre, also known as hematite, served a wide range of functions in Paleo-Indian societies, including as a pigment in rituals. It has been found in ancient graves, caches, campsites, and kill sites across the Great Plains, Rockies, and beyond. The Powars II site is the only red ocher 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.
Among the artifacts previously discovered at the Powars II site are Clovis points – believed to be from the earliest inhabitants of North America – as well as other projectile points, tools and shell beads.
Excavations from 2017 to 2020 led by Pelton – a 6 by 1 meter trench dividing a previously undocumented quarry feature in half – yielded several thousand additional Paleoindian artifacts, as well as many well-preserved animal bones and antlers . Animal bones and antlers were used to extract red ocher from the quarry.
The projectile points came from many places in the region, including as far away as the Edwards Plateau in Texas, according to the newspaper. It is therefore probable that the red ocher found on the archaeological sites of the center of the American continent comes from the Powars II quarry.
“Beyond its quarry status, the Powars II artifact assemblage is itself one of the densest and most diverse discovered so far in early Paleoindian records from the Americas,” Pelton said. . “The site contains more than 30 cut-stone tools per square yard, some of the oldest canid remains at a U.S. archaeological site, and rare or unique artifacts, among other accolades.”
Researchers say the evidence uncovered so far indicates that the quarry was used for two main periods. During the first, dating from 12,840 years ago and lasting several hundred years, people not only mined red ocher – using bones and antlers as tools – but also produced and repaired weapons, as well as other activities. After a hiatus of a century or more, the site was occupied by humans who mined red ocher and deposited artifacts in heaps in a quarry.
“Further excavation of the remaining 800 square meters of the site, estimated at 800 square meters, will certainly reveal a complexity not captured by our sample,” the researchers wrote.
Pelton named the Powars II site to the National Register of Historic Places in 2021.