It’s About Time: Upcoming author interview allows for some local historical reflection
It's About Time
The cave opening was so narrow that we had to enter one at a time, feet first, dragging our packs behind us while twisting and wiggling our bodies to fit through the small tunnel. Soon we were in a room big enough that we could stand comfortably.
It had been a few years since I’d gone caving. I took a deep breath of air that smelled like the dirt of a freshly dug garden.
“This is where the gate will have to go,” I said, as we put on our packs. Our headlamps were already on our hard hats from the long night hike to the cave. We started walking down the cold, damp main passage.
There were many dead-end side passages. At times the side walls became so constricted that in order to pass we turned sideways.
When the cave did occasionally open up, we were scrambling and crawling over formations that were the size of a VW bug, fallen from the ceiling.
We stopped a quarter-mile inside the earth where the 8,000-year-old Ancient One had been discovered. We had work to do.
The three spelunkers who had been exploring for new caves had done the right thing. They had reported their surprising find to the regional Denver office, who gave them my contact information as the local archaeologist in the White River National Forest.
When we first met in Glenwood Springs, the spelunkers were hesitant. They really didn’t want to hear: “Thank you for reporting this. You can go home now. … Your government’s got this.”
Instead, we formed a team that included them. Eventually that team comprised 21 people, including physical and forensic anthropologists, three archaeologists, a representative from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, a radiologist, a cartographer to map the cave, a geologist to do the stratigraphy, a geomorphologist, two speleologists, a cave-gating specialist, a biologist and a Canadian archaeologist. All would volunteer their time.
My job as coordinator/liaison would be like herding cats.
The Canadian archaeologist was brought in to take samples of more than 50 smudge marks left on the cave walls for carbon fourteen (C14) dating. It was only after we started questioning how this ancient individual made it that far into the cave that we began finding the smudge marks.
They were at a height that a raised pine tar torch would make when held in a person’s hand.
For me, the most exciting part of this once-in-a-lifetime experience was obtaining the results of the mitochondrial DNA from the Ancient One, after a difficult and time-consuming extraction and analysis.
One of the four major clusters of DNA lineages found in Native Americans was sequenced from our sample. Our individual was related to the modern Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, the Nuu-Chah-Nulth and the Yakima; Mesoamerica’s Maya Indians; and the Yanomama, the largest relatively isolated tribe in South America.
Back in 1988 when our Ancient One was found, only the mitochondrial DNA, passed from mother to offspring, could be sequenced.
What was this Mayan doing in a cave above 10,500 feet in the southern Rocky Mountains? We may never know.
What we did discover, from the analysis of the partial skeletal remains in the cave, was that the individual was a male in his early 40s and he stood 5-feet-4-inches. The outer layers of both shinbones were abnormally thick, indicating a great deal of hiking and climbing in the mountains.
When we came out of the cave, the sun was coming up. But I had no idea what light would illuminate many future discoveries of the Ancient Ones.
A lot has happened in genetic research of First Americans over the past 34 years.
So it’s with gratitude that I will interview Jennifer Raff, bestselling author of the revolutionary new work “Origin, A Genetic History of the Americas,” at 4 p.m. Monday, March 14, on KDNK.
Join us. It’s exciting stuff.
Bill Kight is executive director of the Glenwood Springs Historical Society. About Time appears monthly in the Post Independent.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.