Generally speaking, a good way to determine the value of something to somebody is to first determine the distance they’re willing to carry it on foot. By this measure–and for reasons that remain a mystery–the Clovis people who lived in North America at the time of the last Ice Age valued a very specific variation of a common red pigment enough to carry a large amount of it on foot some 60 miles from its source.
This is according to a new paper, “Long-distance transport of red ocher by Clovis foragers” , co-authored by 2019 Crow Canyon intern Sandra Zarzycka in the latest edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science. In the paper, Zarzycka and her co-authors say that the analysis of a thick deposit of red ochre at a 13,000 year-old La Prele mammoth processing site (48CO1401) in Wyoming shows that it came from an ancient ochre quarry called Powars II, located nearly 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the southeast.
Red ochre, also known as hematite, is a soft iron oxide mineral that was commonly used by many North American Paleoindians for a variety of purposes including creating pictographs. According to the authors, the red ochre found at the site was analyzed via inductively coupled plasma optical emission spectroscopy, which picked up high concentrations of zinc and nickel, matching samples taken from the Powars II site.
The paper–co-authored by Todd A. Surovell, Madeline E. Mackie, Spencer R. Pelton, Robert L. Kelly, Paul Goldberg, Janet Dewey, and Meghan Kent–acknowledges that the reason why the Clovis people valued red ochre in the context of a mammoth kill remains a mystery.
“Ocher is a mineral that has no nutritional and arguably limited utilitarian value, which begs the question of why this material was moved so far across the landscape,” the report notes. “Given that hematite was transported a long distance, it also seems somewhat odd that so much of it was left at the site. The reason for this apparent contradiction, for now, will have to remain unanswered.”
Zarzycka, a summer field archaeology intern at Crow Canyon, is a currently working on a Masters degree in Environmental Archaeology at the University of North Texas.
Crow Canyon offers paid internships in our Archaeology, Education, and American Indian Initiatives departments for undergraduate and graduate students in archaeology, anthropology, education, and related fields. For more information, click here.