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By the Animas Museum

For centuries the scenic beauty and abundant natural resources in southwest Colorado have attracted residents. Among the earliest inhabitants of the area were a people archeologists have named the Basketmakers. They settled in small villages and lived in rock shelters and on terraces overlooking their corn fields. There is evidence that Basketmakers lived in the Durango area as early as 231 BCE.

We know they were here because of what they left behind. Rock art is one of the oldest forms of communication. Basketmakers created both petroglyphs (picked into the stone) and pictographs (painted on the surface). Archaeological evidence of the Basketmaker II/ III community in the Animas Valley included rock paintings which would have been socially and ritually significant. Paintings in different areas show a variety of mineral pigments in white, black, red, yellow, and blue/green. The artworks depict human figures, (both active and inactive), masks (or faces), handprints, and geometric designs. Animals such as bighorn sheep, snakes and birds are also common.

The Basketmakers were growing corn in the Durango area over 2300 years ago. Ripe corn was roasted and eaten. It was also dried and ground into cornmeal for storage. Stone tools known as a mano and metate were used to grind this corn. The metate is the larger stone that sits in the ground. Corn kernels were placed on the metate and the mano, the smaller hand stone, was used in a back-and-forth motion to grind the corn. Women and children shared the difficult and time-consuming task of grinding the corn. To make grinding easier, they would place their feet against a wall. With their feet and backs to the wall they gained extra leverage which helped with the grinding.

Hunting and gathering completed the Basketmaker diet. Edible plants in the area likely included wild tubers, grains, berries, nuts, and seeds. Archaeologists studying the culture have found evidence of the use of amaranth, a native plant whose seeds were collected and ground into a type of flour. Pinon pine nuts are flavorful and nutrient-rich. Wild tomatillo, purslane, wild sunflower, Indian ricegrass, and winged pigweed have also been found during archaeological studies. When the use of pottery ushered in the Basketmaker III period, beans became a staple food. Clay pots simplified cooking, replacing the use of hot rocks placed in baskets for boiling. Pottery items and sherds found by archaeologists indicate that Basketmaker III pottery was utilitarian and not highly decorated. As time passed, paints (either mineral or botanical) were applied with a yucca brush before firing, which was done in an open pit.

The atlatl and later the bow and arrow would yield a supply of mule deer as well as mountain sheep, mountain goats and pronghorn. Small game such as hares, gophers, porcupines, and some birds were caught using snares and nets. Plants and animals provided more than food for the Basketmaker people. Large mammals such as deer furnished hides for clothing and shelter, bones and antlers for tools, sinew for cordage, hooves for rattles and other objects for domestic and ceremonial use. Ancient shoes and sandals were made from available materials such as hides, grasses and yucca.

The Basketmaker II period ended about 1500 years ago when two major changes ushered in the Basketmaker III period. Pottery vessels began replacing woven baskets and animal hide bags for cooking, and bows and arrows replaced the atlatl, used to throw spears or darts. This significantly changed the lives of the Basketmakers.

What happened to the Basketmakers of the Animas Valley? Perhaps they departed to the south or west, assimilating with other Basketmaker groups. It is possible the population had decreased, so only a few families made that migration. While the Basketmakers lived in the distant past, they did not vanish. It is widely accepted that the Basketmakers are the ancestors of today’s Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, and Rio Grande Puebloan peoples.


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The Animas Museum’s Native American Gallery is the only local exhibit that interprets the life of the earliest residents of the Animas Valley. PHOTO CREDIT: Animas Museum


Image: RockArt

Reproduction of the rock art found in caves in the Animas Valley drawn by James G. Allen as part of the NYA (National Youth Administration) study of local Basketmaker sites in the late 1930s.  This image is found in the Durango Public Library’s 1938 report, available in the Animas Museum’s research library. PHOTO CREDIT:  Durango Public Library Museum Project, Volume III, 1938


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Manos and metates on exhibit at the Museum. PHOTO CREDIT: Animas Museum


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This small seed jar was probably made in the Basketmaker III era in the Four Corners area. PHOTO CREDIT: From the Animas Museum’s Collection # 78.02.29


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The La Plata County Historical Society recently received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to analyze the Museum’s collection of Ancestral Pueblo pottery.  Visit the museum to see more examples of Basketmaker pottery on exhibit. PHOTO CREDIT: Animas Museum


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Reproductions of bone and antler tools and gaming pieces found in Animas Valley Basketmaker sites. PHOTO CREDIT: From the Animas Museum’s Collection #17.02.9, #17.02.12, #17.02.14


Image: 17.02.3

Reproduction of a projectile point made of red chert from a Basketmaker site north of Durango.  PHOTO CREDIT: From the Animas Museum’s Collection #17.02.3


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