Discovered in 1963, the Gordon Creek Burial Site is a Paleo-Indian burial in the Roosevelt National Forest in north-central Colorado. The site, which dates to about 7700 BCE, contained the skeleton of a young woman and several artifacts apparently buried with her. Recently the site has been tentatively associated with the Hell Gap complex, a Paleo-Indian culture known primarily from projectile points found at sites in Wyoming.
Discovery and Early Interpretations
In 1963 a US Forest Service crew doing watershed improvements along Gordon Creek in the mountains northwest of Fort Collins discovered a prehistoric burial site in the bank of one of the creek’s tributaries. The Forest Service quickly notified the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado–Boulder. Archaeologist David Breternitz led salvage excavations that August, and anthropologist Duane Anderson performed further testing in September 1964. They were able to uncover most of the skeleton, which was on its side with the head to the north, as well as scrapers and animal bones that were buried with it. The burial appears to have been isolated. In 1969 archaeologist David Gillio returned to the site to search for more cultural material, but found nothing.
Breternitz, Anderson, and anthropologist Alan Swedlund performed a detailed study of the skeleton and artifacts. Radiocarbon analysis of the left hip bone (a large bone in the pelvis) returned a date of 9400–8700 BCE, placing the burial in the Paleo-Indian period (11,000–5800 BCE) and making it one of the earliest human skeletons found in North America. Based on dental evidence and other clues, the researchers determined that the Gordon Creek skeleton belonged to a young woman who was about twenty-five to thirty-five years old and a little more than four feet ten inches tall. Often referred to as the Gordon Creek Woman, she had no pathologies or anomalies.
The researchers attempted to use evidence from the burial site to reconstruct elements of the original burial event. For her burial, Gordon Creek Woman was coated in red ocher and interred with worked animal ribs, elk teeth that could have been from a necklace, and two stone tools that showed no signs of use and were probably prepared specifically for the burial. It is impossible to know whether the items belonged to the deceased woman, but they seem to fall into three categories: useful items, items for personal adornment, and items created for the burial. These details provide important clues about the rituals involved in Paleo-Indian burials, but they are hard to interpret because there are so few near-contemporary burials for comparison.
After several late twentieth-century discoveries of early human remains in North America, including the famous Kennewick Man in Washington State, the Gordon Creek burial began to receive renewed attention. In 2002 new radiocarbon dating was performed on material from the Gordon Creek site, and the average of all dates returned from the site is now roughly 9000 BCE.
In conjunction with the new dating, archaeologist Mark Muñiz reevaluated the smaller tool discovered with the burial and determined that it resembled Hell Gap projectile points. Muñiz proposed that the Gordon Creek Woman was associated with the Hell Gap cultural complex, which would make Gordon Creek the first recognized Hell Gap burial in North America. The precise cultural affiliation of the Gordon Creek Woman continues to be clouded by the presence of a large Clovis tool at the site. If the Gordon Creek Woman is, in fact, a Hell Gap burial, then the Clovis tool could be a trade object or a sign of continuity between the earlier Clovis and later Hell Gap complexes.