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A study confirms the oldest red ocher mine in North and South America is in Southeastern Wyoming

A man in a red shirt and cowboy hat stands in a pit surrounded by red dirt, looking at something in his hand. An orange Home Depot bucket sits in front of him.
Spencer Pelton
University of Wyoming PhD student Chase Mahan inspects an artifact during excavations at Powars II in 2020.

Archeological excavations led by Wyoming's state archaeologist and University of Wyoming researchers have confirmed that an ancient mine in Southeastern Wyoming was used nearly 13,000 years ago to collect red ocher. This discovery means that the Powars II site is the oldest documented red ocher mine and the oldest mine in North and South America. Wyoming Public Radio's Kamila Kudelska spoke with Wyoming State Archaeologist Spencer Pelton on the discovery.

Spencer Pelton: We didn't yet know if there were intact deposits left at the site. We suspected there were…that these artifacts were all coming from this kind of mat of iron ore and hematite that we could see kind of perched up on a hill. But nobody had yet excavated that deposit. And so my goal going into this site was to document whether or not there were intact deposits. And if there were, to get a really good understanding of how that archaeological site formed, how old it was, and what kind of activities were going on there…really specifically to confirm that people were actually coring hematite at the site. And it wasn't just this weird accumulation of artifacts, but it was actually a…basically a red paint mine.

Kamila Kudelska: And so what did you find out?

SP: We were able to find out a lot more than I thought we would. We were able to confirm that, yeah, it is a hematite quarry. And beyond that, we got a lot of good bone to radiocarbon date, and we were able to show that it's the oldest hematite quarry in the Western Hemisphere. On top of that, we were able to establish, kind of, different phases of use of the site from the earliest stages where people were pioneering this quarry, leaving behind a stickman of quarry tailings. And then we're able to actually see what people came back hundreds of years later, and had to excavate through the quarry tailings of the pioneers of the site, basically, to get down to that mineral again, and they reuse the site again later. So we were able to get a really nuanced, pretty nuanced understanding of how the site was used over a period of 1,000 to 1,500 years, between more or less, like 13,000 and 11,500 years ago or so.

KK: So you're saying this is the oldest known red ocher mine in the Western Hemisphere, is that right?

SP: Yeah, it is. And there's only five of these things at this point that have been identified. The other ones are in Yucatan, one in Peru and one in Chile. That's it. They're super rare archaeological sites. Anytime you've been playing in a creek and you pick up a red rock, you call it a paint rock and you can kind of draw on yourself or whatever. That's technically hematite. But hematite like this, which is basically mined out of an iron ore deposit, forms out of an iron ore deposit, is really rare. If you think about mining in this country, iron deposits, really rich iron deposits, are just not all that common and this hematite is forming in that. So it's a pretty uncommon thing in general, and then finding evidence for people mining it almost 13,000 years ago, is unprecedented, basically.

KK: So what's the significance of finding this?

SP: I think the broader significance is that red paint seems to have held a pretty important role in the lives of Paleoindians on the Plains and the Rocky Mountains. We've found it in basically every context that exists in the archaeological record at that time - burials and caches, animal kills, on the floors of houses. There's been a lot of ideas thrown around about why people were so drawn to this stuff or what they were using it for. Some of the more functional explanations were that it was used to treat hide. Hematite seems to have some sort of antiseptic properties that would have made hide working with it a good thing. People have suggested it has been used in sunscreen; you can spread it on yourself to keep the sun off. But then there's also a lot less practical applications of it. I mean, among modern Native Americans, it's used for a host of ritual purposes and symbolic purposes, used to draw rock art. Basically, just used in every part of life among Paleoindians, at least it seems. So I think the broader context of the site is that we find this, we find this red ochre, hematite sites, all throughout the Plains, from North Dakota, down in Colorado, Texas, and then all the way west into the Rocky Mountains. I strongly suspect that a lot of that hematite came from this site, the Powars II site. This was a place where people were coming from a really long distance, or at least trading for this stuff over a really long distance, for the first several thousand years of human prehistory in North America.

KK: Can you paint a picture of what maybe it looked like when they were there? Were they mining and they created community and that's why all those artifacts are there?

SP: I envision it kind of like a hangout. I imagine there was a campsite pretty nearby. It was probably a pretty bustling place filled with people scraping hides, cooking meat, that kind of thing. And, you know, just over the hill, there's the red paint quarry. And so you go up there, maybe with some rock to flip nap, and you go to the hematite quarry. Your buddy would be over there digging hematites, getting ochre out of the ground. You might be sitting there napping a projectile point, repairing your spear. It certainly seems like, at least the earliest period of use, it wasn't just people going up and digging hematite. It was people congregating with their stone tools and actually working on stuff. The interesting thing, though, is that in the later phase of use, we could see where people would excavate through the quarry tailings of the prior occupations. That seems very much focused solely on hematite quarry. Where people were showing up, it was a destination. And by this time, it was a really difficult task to get to this hematite, because the prior use had just built up a couple of meters deep of quarry tailings on top of the mineral. And so it probably would have taken days to excavate through that stuff to actually get down to the hematite deposit. The later occupation seems very much more focused solely on just getting to the mineral, extracting it and then moving on.

KK: Are there any more research or questions that you all have regarding the Powars II site? Or is it kind of stagnant now?

SP: I think the biggest line of research that we're pursuing right now is just trying to nail down the geochemistry of the mineral so that we can actually start sourcing the hematite to these other archaeological sites where we found red ochre. Because you can't just look at a red ochre and be like, 'Yes, that's from the Powar II site.' It all kind of looks similar, especially after it's been incorporated in the archaeological record. It's been messed with through the last 12,000 years of prehistory. So right now, we're just trying to nail down the geochemistry of this particular hematite source and how it compares to other hematite sources across the plains and Rocky Mountains. And trying to build an understanding of where this ochre was actually going, what distances it was going across the plains, and what directions and at what time. That's, I think, the most exciting part of the research, to me at least, is doing stuff not necessarily on the site itself, but on all the other sites that are potentially connected to it throughout the Northern Plains in the Rocky Mountains.

In addition to reporting daily on the happenings in Northwest Wyoming, Kamila is also the producer of the Kids Ask WhY Podcast and the History Unloaded Podcast.Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.
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