Located near Cottonwood Creek on the Uncompahgre Plateau in Montrose County, Cottonwood Cave is a prehistoric site from the Basketmaker II period (400 BCE–400 CE) of the Ancestral Puebloan tradition. Excavated in 1947 by Clarence T. Hurst, the cave yielded a buried cache of corn that was later radiocarbon dated to 270 BCE, making it some of the earliest corn found in the state. Further excavations at the site could help archaeologists understand the origins of farming in the area.
In August 1947, Clarence Hurst led a team from the Museum of Archaeology at Western State College (now the Clarence T. Hurst Museum at Western State Colorado University) on a two-week field expedition to excavate Cottonwood Pueblo and Cottonwood Cave. Two local men from Nucla, John Galley and W. C. Huntley, had notified Hurst of the sites and helped locate them.
At Cottonwood Cave, Hurst’s team managed only a small-scale excavation because they had to spend several hours each day hiking between their camp and the remote cave. They noted pictographs and petroglyphs on the cave walls and found many perishable Basketmaker materials, including tanned deer hides, baskets, and two types of yucca-leaf sandals. The most important discovery was a bundle found thirty inches below the surface in a trash midden. Made of juniper-bark strips and split yucca leaves, the football-shaped bundle contained fourteen full ears of corn and nearly a gallon of shelled corn. Because the corn was in pristine condition, Hurst speculated that it was probably seed corn or a ceremonial offering, not a food cache.
Excited by the corn discovery, Hurst sent all fourteen ears to Edgar Anderson at the Missouri Botanical Garden for analysis. Anderson found similarities among the ears that indicated they were probably grown in the same field and in the same season. Like other prehistoric corn, the ears were brown, and they had twelve to sixteen rows of kernels. Anderson reported that the corn resembled prehistoric samples from South America and was the most primitive his laboratory had ever seen.
Hurst believed Cottonwood Cave was one of the most significant prehistoric sites he had excavated. He planned to do more work there, hoping that the site’s deep cultural deposits (a test trench had revealed material at least thirteen feet down) might show how the area’s population shifted from Archaic-era hunting and gathering to Basketmaker-era farming. Before Hurst could return, however, he died in January 1949. The site saw no further work for the next forty years, with the possible exception of a poorly documented excavation by Metropolitan State College faculty in the 1970s.
When the Clarence T. Hurst Museum at Western State began to reanalyze Hurst’s collections in the early 1990s, the biggest priority was to submit the Cottonwood Cave corn cache for radiocarbon dating for the first time. The corn returned a date of about 270 BCE, providing firm evidence of early farming at high elevations in western Colorado.
In 1994, Western State anthropologist Mark Stiger reexamined the cave and found limited evidence of looting. He believes the corn cache consisted of seed corn stored for use at a farm plot near the cave. It remains unclear whether earlier Archaic peoples in the area adopted corn farming or were replaced by a different farming culture, but it is possible that Cottonwood Cave’s extensive unexcavated deposits hold important clues.