Posted: 04/15/2012 01:00:00 AM MDT
April 17, 2012
12:47 AM GMT
Molly the Columbian mammoth lived, grazed, and died, about 13,000 years ago
near a spring in what is now a fast-developing chunk of Douglas County. Five
thousand years later, early North American humans spent time at the same spring,
where they killed and butchered bison.
We don't know if humans visited the spring at the same time as Molly, but if
the Lamb Spring site produces evidence that they did — and it tantalizes with
hope — the site could rewrite the scientific and cultural history of North
America. And perhaps offer the Denver area a new attraction (see sidebar, Page
Lamb Spring sits in the Chatfield Basin, between South Platte Canyon Road and
Chatfield Reservoir. "Stand on that site (Lamb Spring) and look around. You
realize you are in the middle of one of the fastest-developing areas in
Colorado," said Jim Walker, southwest regional director for The
Archaeological Conservancy, an Albuquerque nonprofit that buys
archaeologically promising land and safeguards it from development. The
conservancy bought the Lamb Spring site in 1995. "The fact that we were able to
find that site, buy it and preserve it, at the time we did, was a miracle. I'll
bet within 10 years that area is going to be covered in houses."
Walker believes further excavation of Lamb Spring could show human activity
between 13,000 and even 25,000 years ago, in which case "there would be a lot of
rewriting of the peopling of North America."
"I would place Lamb Spring really high, in terms of its importance," he said.
"If I were ranking Lamb Spring among the other 450 preserves we have, it would
be in the top 10."
Evidence of Pleistocene megafauna like mammoths makes the Lamb Spring dig
compelling in its own right, but mammoth sites pepper the West. Early-human
findings, in contrast, are rare. Placing both in the same location sets Lamb
Spring — the largest "mixed dig" in the country — apart.
The findings may do more than just embellish what we already know: that
humans roamed North America as far back as 11,200 years ago. Some archaeologists
believe Lamb Spring could provide solid evidence, instead of just speculation,
that people lived in North America much earlier.
Rancher's surprise find
Today, the Lamb Spring dig amounts to little more than a weed-choked and
trash-sprinkled depression in the ground, a cavity surrounded by 35 acres of
undulating, fenced-in prairie. An informational plaque sits beside the gated
dirt path that leads to the site. Once a month for half the year, people can
watch a video about the site and then follow
a tour guide to the swale to observe the grass.
If it weren't for a rancher's desire for a stock pond 50 years ago, the bones
of Molly and 30 other mammoths — the largest find in Colorado, and the third-
biggest in North America — would likely remain buried. But in 1960 Charles Lamb
decided to use a spring on his land to make a fishing pond, and while digging he
struck some big bones. Geologists identified them as mammoths.
In 1981, Smithsonian Institute archaeologist Dennis Stanford excavated the
site and found many more mammoth bones, as well as camels, horses, sloths,
llamas and wolves.
Stanford also found a 30-pound rock. Marks on the stone suggested it had been
used as a butcher block. Geological forces could not have brought the stone to
the site. Instead, Stanford theorized, early humans must have done it, and based
on its location in the sediment, that could have happened 16,000 years ago. If
the theory can be proved, it will mean humans dwelled at Lamb Spring at least
that long ago.
For North American archaeologists, the faintest whisper of "paleo-Indian"
usually sends hearts racing. Walker said he'll "drop everything" if he hears of
a site that could be purchased. Signs of early humans in North America are
scarce, largely because the population was small and nomadic. Most evidence
amounts to a scrap here, a smidgen there.
But in addition to Lamb Spring's threat to upend the history of the peopling
of North America, it also shows clear signs of a 9,000-year-old "Cody complex"
bison kill, a site, similar to one found in Cody, Wyo., where humans camped,
slaughtered buffalo, cut the meat, and hammered at bone with rocks to withdraw
marrow. That alone makes Lamb Spring beguiling to archaeologists. But Lamb
Spring, too, holds hints that the site was more than a quick way station for
"I think Lamb Spring could yield what would be a jackpot — a campsite or
village," said Walker. "That would be incredible."
"A lot of potential"
"The site tells us about the ancient environment, about the environment of
the Front Range and the foothills, what they were like in the past, how it has
changed, how climate has changed," said James Dixon, a University of New Mexico
anthropology professor who has been active in Lamb Spring. "And it has the
archaeological story, a later chapter. It has a lot of potential."
That potential seems to spread beyond Lamb Spring, too. Just three-quarters
of a mile away, archaeologists from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science are unearthing mammoth
bones and signs of early humans at a site they call Scott Spring.
"It's like a mini-Lamb Spring," said Steven Holen, curator of archaeology for
the museum. "At Scott Spring we are seeing bones even older (than at Lamb
Spring) that appear to have been broken by humans. That's what we are doing
there — looking for evidence of humans older than Clovis (11,200 years
The team began excavating the site in 2010, and dug a test bed where a
prairie dog had burrowed down into a mammoth tusk.
"There was ivory lying all around," Holen said. So far, they have identified
a mammoth, a camel and a Pleistocene horse.
"These spring sites have great promise," he said. "They used those springs
and hunted around those springs for thousands of years."
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I'm one of the founders of Goddesschess, which went online May 6, 1999. I earned an under-graduate degree in history and economics going to college part-time nights, weekends and summer school while working full-time, and went on to earn a post-graduate degree (J.D.) I love the challenge of research, and spend my spare time reading and writing about my favorite subjects, travelling and working in my gardens. My family and my friends are most important in my life. For the second half of my life, I'm focusing on "doable" things to help local chess initiatives, starting in my own home town. And I'm experiencing a sort of personal "Renaissance" that is leaving me rather breathless...