The Archaic period is an era in the human history of Colorado dating from ca. 6500 BC–AD 200. It is one of the three prehistoric periods used by archaeologists to characterize broad cultural changes that occurred throughout the Americas. It was preceded by the Paleo-Indian period (ca. 11,500–7000 BC), extending back into the late Ice Age, and was followed by the Formative period (1000 BC–AD 1450), when horticulture based on corn first took place on a broad scale. Throughout the state and region, the lifeways of human populations involved nomadic to semi-nomadic hunting-and-gathering activities that varied depending on local environmental conditions. By any measure, the Archaic period represents a highly successful and long-lived cultural era in Colorado’s history, although it may also be the most obscure in the public eye.
Because Colorado’s inhabitants never established permanent settlements during the Archaic period, the physical evidence for their presence is commonly subtle and difficult to spot by the untrained eye. Temporary campsites, sometimes occurring in natural cliff-side alcoves or rock shelters, are common throughout the state and most often recognized by hearths associated with scatters of stone tools and tool-making debris. Longer-term seasonal dwellings also have been found and collectively preserve a surprisingly diverse architectural record. Tipis, wickiups, walled rock shelters, pithouses, and log-framed, mud-covered surface huts are among the house types recorded thus far. Abstract and representational forms of rock art are important resources that provide significant insights into ritual systems and beliefs and are locally abundant in southern and western Colorado. Other documented types of sites include material quarries and manufacturing areas for stone tools, hunting-related lookouts, game animal kill sites, and vegetal processing stations. Although uncommon, human burial sites are typically isolated graves containing artifacts associated with gender-specific activities, such as hunting gear or seed-milling equipment.
Generally speaking, Archaic populations operated at a Stone Age level of technology. There were no metal or manufactured glass artifacts, and the only beasts of burden were domestic dogs. The spear thrown with a wood tool called an atlatl was the hunting weapon of choice; the bow and arrow did not appear until the end of the period. The flaked stone spear tips were made in a wide variety of styles. Containers were made from baskets or animal skins, as ceramic technology was not yet known. Milling implements made from abrasive rock such as sandstone were used to grind seeds into flour. Wild plants most favored for this purpose included lambsquarter and native grasses. Jewelry and other ornamentation are seldom preserved, but simple beads and pendants of bone and tooth have been found.
Several regional expressions of Archaic lifeways have been defined in Colorado and adjacent states based on patterned differences in artifact styles, architectural forms, campsite preferences, dietary emphases, and other cultural practices. Such cultural variation is recognized on the western plains, in the mountains, on the Western Slope, and in the southwestern canyon country. However, it is clear that the similarities in Archaic period archaeology across Colorado are far more important than the differences.
Unlike Formative period localities such as Mesa Verde National Park and, to a lesser degree, Paleo-Indian sites such as Lindenmeier, there are no prominent Archaic period sites where public interpretation is available. Perhaps the most heavily trafficked Archaic site is Vail Pass Camp, where the Colorado Department of Transportation maintains a rest stop along Interstate 70. However, few visitors to the rest stop likely realize that the CDOT facility co-occurs with a campsite containing an 8,000-year-long record of intermittent human use, including an exceptional Archaic period record. Indeed, many of the places where modern Coloradans enjoy visiting or camping were the sites of repeated use by Archaic period groups. These highly successful groups set the stage for the much better publicized peoples of the Formative period.