Archaeologists have discovered the oldest mine in America, where prehistoric humans found a rare red pigment

Archaeologists have discovered what appears to be the oldest mine in the Americas, a quarry in eastern Wyoming where prehistoric humans mined red ocher around 13,000 years ago.

Red ochre, also known as hematite, was a versatile substance for the ancients, who used it in ritual ceremonies as an insect repellent or sunscreen, and for medicinal purposes. It was also extremely important to prehistoric artists, for whom it was a pigment for painting rock art.

The quarry discovery, discovered at a site known as Powars II, was published this month in the academic journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by a team from the University of Wyoming.

“We have unequivocal evidence of use of this site by early Paleoindians 12,840 years ago and continuing by early Americans for approximately 1,000 years,” said Wyoming state archaeologist Spencer Pelton. , lead author of the paper, in a statement.

A Clovis point discovered on the Powars II site. Photo by Spencer Pelton, courtesy of the University of Wyoming.

During excavations of a new trench at Powars II conducted between 2017 and 2020, archaeologists found antlers and other animal bones that had been used to extract red ocher from the earth.

Radiocarbon dating techniques determined that humans began digging the mine 12,840 to 12,505 years ago and the site was active for hundreds of years. Humans have even returned after a hiatus of about a century, resuming their mining activities.

The findings confirm theories proposed by archaeologist George Frison, who began studying the Powars II site in 1986, helping to save it from a 20th-century mining project. (He died in 2020, shortly after excavations were completed, and is still credited as the paper’s co-author.)

Before the most recent excavations, artifacts unearthed at the Powars II site included Clovis points made by early North American inhabitants, tools and shell beads – and archaeologists expect more finds as excavations continue in the years to come.

“Beyond its quarry status, the Powars II artifact assemblage is itself one of the densest and most diverse discovered so far in early Paleoindian records from the Americas,” Pelton added. .

Red ocher was commonly used in the Americas and has been found in many ancient cemeteries, campsites, and hunting grounds. But only five red ocher quarries have been identified in the Americas, and Powars II is the first discovery north of southern Mexico.

“Red paint is the oldest form of symbolic expression,” Pelton told the Gillette News Record. “But there just isn’t a lot of red pigment in America.”

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