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14 February 2004
Survey finds Indian prehistoric evidence

A dozen researchers spent the past three months scouring the Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area (Southern Nevada, USA) for evidence of ancient civilizations. They came away with samples from at least 80 prehistoric sites and a host of new questions about how the area was used over the past 1,500 years and by whom.
     "I was really shocked by the complexity of the archaeology," said Stan Rolf, district archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management. One of the biggest surprises was the discovery of pottery shards decorated with the black-on-white designs used by the Ancestral Puebloans, also known as the Anasazi. Other, more recent items found suggest the presence of American Indian tribes that might have been using the area at the same time, leading some to wonder about interaction and cooperation between the tribes.
     "The first question we really wanted to answer was what's the distribution of prehistoric as well as historic sites," archaeologist Amy Gilreath said. "Everybody knows there is rock art in Sloan Canyon. That's the flashy part." Gilreath is a principal partner for Far Western Anthropological Research Group Inc., the consulting firm hired to conduct the survey. She was part of the 12-member survey crew that examined more than 12,000 acres, one quarter of the conservation area.
     About half of the sites logged by the survey crew are what Gilreath described as "pretty good-looking milling and camp sites." In those areas, charred bone and fire-cracked rock mark the locations of ancient cooking fires, where hunters gathered to eat, rest and repair their hunting equipment. The milling sites are interesting, she said, because they seem to point to the use of the Sloan Canyon for another purpose: the harvesting of native grasses and seeds. Also found were blinds where hunters waited for bighorn sheep and rock shelters where the hunters went to escape the wind and the sun.
     In one search area, archaeologists discovered a handful of shell beads from along the Pacific Coast and Gulf of California, which might have been used in trade, Rolf said. They did not find evidence of permanent settlements, which is unsurprising because no permanent source of water exists within the conservation area. "There's nothing that I would call a village site," Gilreath said. "Most of the sites are so small it's hard to imagine more than a few people using them at one time."
     Small concentrations of rock art, both petroglyphs and pictographs, were found in the conservation area, but they were nothing as elaborate as the designs found in Sloan Canyon, Gilreath said. Between 1,700 and 1,800 different symbols have been identified.
     That work should give archaeologists a fairly complete picture of how the area might have been used by indigenous people. The effort could lead to additional study, including archaeological digs at as many as 10 sites.
     Protecting Sloan Canyon's archaeological treasures is a major concern, Rolf said. When he made his first visit to the canyon in 1977, Rolf found several spots where rock art was chiseled out and removed. Little vandalism appears to have happened since then. But the risk will increase as residential development fills the empty desert surrounding the boundary of the conservation area. For that reason, Rolf and Gilreath will not say exactly where the archaeological sites were found within the conservation area. Within Sloan Canyon, Rolf would like to see a system modeled after Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado, where visitors must sign up for guided tours to gain access to the elaborate cliff dwellings.

Source: Las Vegas Review-Journal (11 February 2004)

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