Discovered in 1994, the Mountaineer Archaeological Site consists of more than sixty clusters of prehistoric artifacts on top of Tenderfoot Mountain near Gunnison. The most significant discovery at the site has been structures dating to the Paleo-Indian period (9500–5800 BCE) and associated with the Folsom tradition. The structures indicate more extensive Folsom use of the mountains than was previously thought, suggesting that the core of Folsom settlement in Colorado could have been in the mountains rather than on the plains.
Discovery and Early Research
In 1994 the Mountaineer Site was first recorded as a lithic scatter during surveys for the construction of cell-phone towers and other facilities on Tenderfoot Mountain. In 2000 the top of the mountain was surveyed and mapped, resulting in the discovery of more than fifteen clusters of artifacts, including parts of twenty Folsom fluted points.
Anthropologist Mark Stiger of Western State Colorado University in Gunnison has led much subsequent research at the site. With the help of grants from the State Historical Fund, an undergraduate field school from Western State conducted further testing from 2001 to 2004 and partially excavated two Folsom clusters. In 2002–3 a team of Southern Methodist University graduate students under David J. Meltzer excavated a third Folsom cluster at the site. Additional field school projects led by Stiger and Meltzer occurred almost every year through 2014.
In one section of the site, researchers found a structure associated with a large number of stone tools and Folsom projectile points. The structure is a shallow basin about twelve feet in diameter, with rocks piled around the edges. It appears to be a residential structure complete with a hearth, a storage pit, and an anvil used for cracking animal bones. Bone fragments inside the structure are radiocarbon dated to around 10,400 BCE, placing it within the Folsom range. Evidence suggests that the structure once had a tipi-like covering made of aspen poles and other plant material, capped with mud. This superstructure eventually burned and collapsed, possibly because of a lightning strike after the structure was abandoned.
Anthropologists and archaeologists originally thought of the Folsom culture as mobile bison hunters on the plains. Recent Folsom discoveries such as the Mountaineer Site and others in the Upper Gunnison Basin and Middle Park have pointed toward a modified view of the Folsom tradition involving long-term habitations in the mountains. At the Mountaineer Site, clear spatial distribution of artifacts and evidence of spatial maintenance, including an area for trash outside the structure, indicate that the structure was probably used for an extended period, perhaps even over the winter.
The Mountaineer Site is on property managed by Western State but owned by the state of Colorado and used by telecommunications companies and radio stations that have towers on Tenderfoot Mountain. To balance the competing demands of historic preservation, archaeological research, and tower maintenance, in 2013 representatives from the state, the university, and the tower owners developed a cultural resource management plan to regulate access to the site. The state approved the plan in December 2013.
Visitors interested in seeing the site can take scheduled tours offered by the university during the summer.