updated 2/4/2005 9:16:08 AM ET 2005-02-04T14:16:08

Five thousand years ago, a band of ancient people built homes on the edge of a stream in what is now the Denver suburb of Parker.

It was not a temporary camp, like so many of the archaeological discoveries made from that period.  People here made large houses, some of them 24 feet across, with wood posts and walls of brush or hide.  They probably spent months in the area and may have returned, again and again, over centuries.

The experts at a construction site here have about a month or two to make sense of butchered bison bones, spear points, grinding stones and pit houses.  After that, the site will probably be demolished to make way for Parker's new reservoir complex.

"This was a real special place.  There's a lot here," said Doug Voss, reservoir project superintendent for Weaver General Construction Co.  His company hired Centennial Archaeology to scour the construction zone for important historic material and has increased security because of recent vandalism at the dig site.

The artifacts found in Parker — the toe bone of an ancient bison, hundreds of spear points and especially the rare home sites — will help archaeologists understand a period of time about which they know relatively little, said Erik Gantt, lead archaeologist for Centennial.

The people who lived on Colorado's plains 5,000 years ago were nomadic hunters and gatherers, he said.  They apparently lived in small family groups, hunting everything from rabbits to bison and collecting seeds and berries.  They might have settled into larger groups for the winter but moved often, probably following game.

"This was a good place to be," Gantt said, looking around at the nearby stream, grasslands and cottonwoods in Newlin Gulch.  "There was the creek, elk and other game, a great source of stone for tools."

On a nearby mesa, his team discovered tens of thousands of spear points and other tools from about the same time, and a stone circle, which seems ceremonial, he said.

At the main valley site recently, a crew of six moved dirt with shovels, brushes and picks, sifted it and pointed out the subtle changes in dirt color and texture that trace the outlines of ancient homes and hearths.

"It's starting to look like a small village, and we just don't find many of these residential sites," Gantt said. "They're important, in that you get a view of the full range of human activities."

He picked up a flat stone, with smooth, shaped edges, and pointed to a tiny dot on one edge.  "Someone was drilling a hole here," he said. "They didn't finish."

The homes were dug about a foot or more into the ground, then circled with posts and probably draped with animal hides or brush, Gantt said.  He and his crew have discovered fire pits in the centers of the structures, and storage pits, probably for dried meat or pemmican, a mixture of meat, berries and other foods.

Trade networks
Archaeologists have found similar hamlets, also about 5,000 years old, in Wyoming's Wind River Range and Colorado's San Luis Valley, he said.  People back then apparently had trade networks stretching for hundreds of miles.

Kevin Gilmore, a University of Denver archaeologist, said it's not clear who, among modern tribes, may have descended from the people who lived in Parker 5,000 years ago.  "People moved around an awful lot, so it's hard to make a direct case for cultural connections," he said. 

But Gilbert Brady, a historic preservation expert with the Cheyenne tribe in Montana, said he suspects he may be related.  "These might be my people," Brady said, standing on the dusty edge of the precise, square excavation pits.  "This is how they lived."

Weaver hired Brady to make sure the excavations respect Cheyenne and other tribal traditions.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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