Remarkable collection of ancient American tools displayed for first time

Anthropology Professor Doug Bamforth with a selection of ancient stone tools found within the city limits of Boulder, Colorado, in 2008. Photo: Glenn J. Asakawa 
Anthropology Professor Doug Bamforth with a selection of ancient stone tools found within the city limits of Boulder, Colorado, in 2008. Photo: Glenn J. Asakawa

A remarkable collection of 13,000-year-old tools, two of which were shown by protein residue tests to have been used to cut up American camels and horses, have gone on public display for the first time.

The 83-piece stone tool cache was unearthed within the city limits of Boulder, Colorado, in 2008.

It was dug up with a shovel by a landscaping crew led by Brant Turney, who were building a fishpond in the yard of Patrick Mahaffy. The items were packed in a space about the size of a shoebox under two feet of soil, apparently untouched for millennia.

Mahaffy is now loaning them to the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History as the centerpiece of its new exhibit, Unearthed: Ancient Life in the Boulder Valley, which is likely to run at least a year.

Colorado University’s Professor Douglas Bamforth, who has been studying the tools for several years, said they were left behind for reasons unknown by nomadic hunter-gatherers.

Protein residue tests on the tools, collectively known as the Mahaffy cache, showed two of the knives had been used to cut up camels and horses, which went extinct in North America at the end of the last ice age. Residue of ancient bear and sheep protein was found on two other Mahaffy cache tools, he said.

The protein residue tests were undertaken in the lab of Professor Robert Yohe of California State, Bakersfield. Protein residues on the artifacts were tested against various animal anti-sera, a procedure similar to standard allergy tests and which can narrow positive reactions down to specific mammalian families, said Bamforth. The study was the first to identify camel protein residue on a Clovis-age tool and only the second to identify horse protein residue.

Following the 2008 discovery, Mahaffy contacted Bamforth, who specializes in the archaeology of the Great Plains, including its earliest inhabitants.

“When I first saw the tools, I was astonished,” Bamforth said.

“It looked like someone gathered together some of their most spectacular tools and other ordinary scraps of potentially useful material and stuck them all into a small hole in the ground, fully expecting to come back at a later date and retrieve them.”

Bamforth immediately recognized that some quartzite and chert materials in the cache had come from several different areas he had visited while conducting research, including the Uinta Mountains in northeast Utah, the Green River Basin in northwest Colorado and southwest Wyoming, and Middle Park near Kremmling, Colorado.

He concluded that the Mahaffy cache likely originated in the Uintas, was carried up the Yampa River Valley in Colorado, then through the Gore Range and into Middle Park.

From there, the cache – which could have changed hands along the way – was probably toted to the Colorado River headwaters and over a pass in or near present-day Rock Mountain National Park, and up and over to the Front Range.

“The tools are almost pristine,” Bamforth said. “The simplest explanation is that these people made the trip to present-day Boulder in one shot, perhaps in a month, without stopping along the way.” They may have been carried in a hide bag, he speculated.

Climatic evidence indicates Boulder was cooler and wetter 13,000 years ago during in the late Pleistocene epoch and receding glaciers would have been prominent along the Front Range of Colorado. The Mahaffy cache burial site appears to be on the edge of ancient drainage that ran northeast from Boulder’s foothills, Bamforth said.

In addition to camels and horses, the landscape in present-day Colorado 13,000 years ago was home to now-extinct saber-toothed cats, wooly mammoths, dire wolves, short-faced bears, wooly rhinos, and giant ground sloths.

While scientists have speculated these and other ice-age mammals may have disappeared as a result of overhunting, climate change or even the explosion of a wayward asteroid, the reasons remain unresolved, Bamforth said.

The Mahaffy cache – which includes elegantly crafted, salad plate-sized bifacial knives, a tool resembling a double-bitted axe and a number of smaller blades – is one of a handful of artifact collections known as Clovis caches, named after a particular tool style used by one of the oldest known groups of New World Paleo-Indians.

Mahaffy is the chief executive of a Boulder-headquartered biotechnology company he founded in 2009 named Clovis Oncology in honor of the cache.

“It’s highly evocative to imagine these tools in the hands of ancient people chasing down prehistoric mammals,” Mahaffy said.

“Making them accessible to the public will allow more people to be fascinated by them, and to wonder about the first humans wandering in this area.

“There is a magic to these artifacts.

“One of the things you don’t get from just looking at them is how incredible they feel in your hand – they are almost ergonomically perfect and you can feel how they were used. It is a wonderful connection to the people who shared this same land a long, long time ago.”

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