BLM Colorado | WRFO Cultural Resources | Cultural History of Northwest Colorado | Formative
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Archaic Era 

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History of Northwest




Cliffside fortification 

Drastic changes in technologies and settlement patterns define the Formative Era (c. 400 BC-AD 1,300). Generally, peoples became more localized and settled. Differences between different cultures became more pronounced, though extensive trade networks kept people connected. New technologies allowed for more the intensive use of smaller areas of land: the use of the atlatl and dart gave way to the bow and arrow, masonry and adobe architecture partly replaced the transitory structures of nomads, ceramics replaced baskets in certain functions, and corn horticulture supplemented hunting and gathering throughout the Southwest.


In Northwest Colorado, the Formative Era is represented by the Fremont culture (c. AD 1-1,300). This is an archaeological culture defined by the general Formative adaptations listed above and by specific, local styles of tools, rock art, architecture, and ceramics. The Fremont identifiers include:

·         The use of stone masonry (dry and wet laid) and adobe to construct dwellings and cliff-sheltered granaries.

·         Growing domesticated maize (corn). Locally there is a greater reliance on native chenopodium and amaranthus seeds, while Fremont elsewhere grew beans and squash.

·         Unique rock art styles prominently featuring trapezoidal-bodied anthropomorphs, infrequently mirrored in trapezoidal ceramic figurines.

·         Unique styles of moccasins, ceramics, and basketry.


Preistoric granaryResearchers have identified a number of regional variants within the Fremont culture. While the definitions of these subgroups are still in debate, along with the definitions of Fremont culture as a whole and the validity of this grouping, a rough consensus exists. Northwestern Colorado was home to two distinct Fremont variants—the Uinta Fremont of the Yampa and Green River drainages, and the San Rafael Fremont of the White and Colorado River drainages. Some have argued for a separate Douglas Creek Fremont unit, related in some ways to the San Rafael Fremont, in and around Canyon Pintado. These variants are demonstrated in a number of ways, but especially through architecture and rock art. For example, the rock art of Canyon Pintado is very similar to that of the Moab area and Nine Mile Canyon in Utah, but distinct from the Classic style art of the Irish Canyon-Vernal region in form and content.


The ethnic and linguistic affiliations of the Fremont culture remain a mystery to archaeologists. Researchers define the Fremont culture and its variants by looking primarily at art and tool styles, settlement patterns, and modes of food procurement. The resulting analytical units do not necessarily reflect the ways Fremont peoples would have identified themselves culturally and politically. The disappearance of the Fremont culture, observed in the archaeological record around AD 1,300, may represent a mass exodus of the Fremont peoples, possible dispersal and assimilation with surrounding groups, or a revolutionary change in technology and lifestyle for a people who remained in place.

Last updated: 03-20-2014