Lecture Program

AIA Lecturer: Douglas Bamforth

Affiliation: University of Colorado, Boulder

Douglas Bamforth is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder:

“I am an archaeologist who works mainly on the Great Plains; I have also worked in the Colorado mountains, coastal California, the California desert, the Great Basin, Germany, and Ireland. I have a major technical interest in the study of how ancient people made and used stone tools. My research has focused on how human use of the Plains landscape responded to long-term environmental change during the Paleoindian period (from roughly 11,000 to 8000 BC); recently, my interests have shifted towards the archaeology of farmers on the central and northern Plains during the last 1000 years. I am currently involved in a long-term field project that examines the archaeology of the Ceramic Period along the Pine Ridge in northwestern Nebraska.”


Historians, geographers, and archaeologists have argued for over a century that the American West begins at the 100th meridian, which is said to define the boundary between the arid west and the well-watered east.  West of the 100th meridian, indigenous people were hunters and gatherers; east of it, they were farmers.  The archaeology of the Great Plains has always complicated this argument: since the 1930s, we have known about indigenous Plains farmers in southwestern Nebraska.  This talk presents new (and some old) evidence of related Plains farmers almost on the Nebraska/Wyoming border.  During the late 12th century, people grew maize and manufactured Plains Village pottery at the King site near Chadron, Nebraska.  The archaeology of this community mixes together elements of western Plains hunter-gatherers and eastern Plains farmers and the people who lived there may have been western Plains people in transition from hunting and gathering to food production.

Landscapers discovered the Mahaffy cache in a suburban front yard in Boulder, Colorado, in 2008.  The cache includes 86 artifacts ranging from unmodified flakes to extraordinarily sophisticated bifaces, all made from raw material found far to the west of Boulder across the Rocky Mountains.  Protein residue analysis indicates that tools in the cache were used on genera of animals that became extinct in North America at the end of the Ice Age, implying that people left the cache behind in Clovis times.  This lecture describes the cache, discusses its implications for our understanding of Clovis ways of life, and considers evidence indicating it represents a single walk from northeastern Utah to Boulder.

Archaeology wonders at great length about how people invented farming but often takes the subsequent spread of farming more or less for granted.  Globally, we know that farming spread in many ways.  Sometimes farmers migrated into hunter-gatherer land and took it; other times they traded and married with hunter-gatherers over longer periods before farming became dominant.  In every case, though, the transformation from hunting and gathering happened knowledgably, involving groups who must have interacted, eaten each other’s foods, and spoken together.  This talk explores this problem on the central Great Plains, where evidence for the earliest (12th century) maize farmers knew the great Mississippian center of Cahokia.  The first pulse of maize farming in eastern Kansas and adjacent areas shows a mix of Cahokian and indigenous architecture and material culture; people had to have moved back and forth.  These earliest groups also shifted from collective to individual burial, suggesting significant changes in the way people symbolized their community.  Over a century, though, maize farming spread more widely without the trappings of Mississippian society, as other Midwestern agriculturalists spread into the region.

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