Red ochre was used by the prehistoric occupants of the Americas in a wide range of activities, from the symbolic to the everyday, and has been found at sites ranging from burials and settlements to locations associated with hunting and tool production. Now excavations in Wyoming have identified the earliest known American site where this popular pigment was mined.
Powars II, in the foothills of the southern Rocky Mountains, is just one of just five red- ochre quarries discovered in the Americas, and the only one currently known in the North American record above Mesoamerica. It has been suggested that this location was home to an early ochre quarry since University of Wyoming archaeologist George Frison learned of the site’s existence in the early 1980s, but it was not until after several decades of work (and Frison’s death in 2020) that Powars II’s significance was finally confirmed. Recent excavations and analysis of material from the quarry, including projectile points and tools, indicate that the site had two phases of occupation in prehistory.
Archaeologists determined that the quarry was first in use as early as c.12,800 years ago and was worked intermittently for several centuries. The activity during this era is associated with the Clovis and Plainview cultures, and involved the quarrying of ochre using tools made of animal bone and deer antler, as well as the production and repair of weaponry and other tasks connected to the extensive stone-tool assemblage found at the site. After this, there appears to have been a hiatus of a century or so, before another phase of occupation occurred, c.11,600 years ago, this time associated with the Hell Gap culture. The site’s occupants in this second phase appear to have dug down through the material left behind by the earlier miners to get to the ochre bedrock, although they do not seem to have carried out any flint-knapping or stone-tool production. They also deposited piles of artefacts in a quarry pit, in what appears to have been a single event.
Artefacts made of non-local materials, including some from as far away as the Edwards Plateau in Texas, indicate that the quarry may have been the source of much of the ochre found across the American midcontinent. In addition to the importance of the quarry itself, the site is significant for the density and diversity of its artefact assemblage, and has also produced some of the earliest canid remains from an American archaeological site.
It is hoped that future excavations will shed more light on the quarry’s use, but the recent work represents an important step in understanding the significance of Powars II. The research has now been published in the journal PNAS (https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2201005119).