Rising out of the plain of the San Luis Valley and nestled against the Sangre De Cristo Mountain Range, is one of North America’s most unique ecosystems—the Great Sand Dunes. The Great Sand Dunes System project is a partnership between the Friends of the Dunes, a non-profit group in the San Luis Valley, the National Park Service, and the Smithsonian Institution. The project team includes archaeologists, anthropologists, geologists, environmental scientists, and educators. For almost 10,000 years, Native Americans hunted big game animals in the extensive wetlands that filled the valley. As the wetlands diminished, the Indians who lived in the surrounding areas continued to adapt to the valley and draw on its natural resources. To many Native Americans the San Luis Valley is a place with special meaning and deep culture history. Over the last two years, archaeological teams have conducted surveys and excavations in the areas surrounding the dunes and found fascinating evidence about how ancient and more recent Native Americans used the Great Sand Dunes. The Smithsonian team, lead by Dr. Peggy Jodry, working in the area of Big Spring and Little Spring on the western edge of the dune field, found evidence of possible pit-house structures from over five thousand years ago. These structures would have most likely been shallow pits dug to a depth of a foot or two with a brush structure above. These brush structures are sometimes called Wickiups. Evidence suggesting a central fire hearth has been found in several of these structures.
Another archaeological team lead by Marilyn Martorano has documented more recent sites in the Pinion-Juniper forests that surround the dunes to the east. One of the more interesting sites is the Indian Grove site. This National Register of Historic Places site is a stand of approximately 200 ponderosa pine trees, of which 72 show evidence of having been culturally peeled. Scientific data and oral histories suggest that Ute Indians used these trees in the 19th and 20th centuries for food and medicinal purposes as well as for constructing objects such as cradleboards, saddles, and structure roofing.
For additional information about this project please contact the State Historical Fund at 303-866-2825.
Top Right: Dr. Pegi Jodry discusses her teams findings in the sand sheet area of the Great Sand Dunes, including this Archaic Period hearth and possible pit structure.
Bottom Left: An archaeological team lead by Marilyn Martorano and Ted Hoeffer survey in the Pinyon forest to the east of the dune fields.