Rocky Mountain National Park has been the home to Native Americans for at least the last 12,000 years. The remains of all the known prehistoric cultures except Folsom (ca. 10,000-8000 years ago) have been found in the park. The basic prehistoric sequence is Clovis (11,000and 10,000); Folsom; Early, Middle and Late Archaic (7,500-2,000); and the Early, Middle, and Late Ceramic cultures (2,000 to 300).
The major inhabitants of the Park area in historic times were the Ute and Arapaho. Ute origins may have been in the Great Basin and/or the mountainous areas of the State and we strongly suspect that Uto-Aztecan speaking ancestors of the Ute have occupied the Colorado mountains for at least 6,000 years. The Apache appear to have been in the park for at least 400 years as based on the presence of their pottery and historical accounts of a battle with the Arapaho in the 1830s in Upper Beaver Meadow. The Arapaho homeland was originally in Minnesota, and they migrated into Colorado by about 1790. No less than 36 place names in the Park are of Arapaho origin. By about 1880, the Ute had been moved to reservations in Colorado and Utah, and the Arapaho to Oklahoma and Wyoming.
Due to the high altitude and severe winters, occupation for these hunter-gatherers in the park was confined to the warmer months. Major occupation may have been in the fall of the year when the high altitude elk game drives were in operation. Present evidence indicates that winter occupation was at lower altitude along the Front Range, and in Middle and North Parks.
Historic archeological sites include the remains of roads, resorts, ranches, mines, mining towns, cabins, sawmills, water control structures, three CCC camps, signs, and several old National Park Service campgrounds and entrance stations.
Some 400 prehistoric and 600 historic archeological sites have been recorded thanks to a five year long survey of the park by the University of Northern Colorado .
Driving or corralling animals is one of the oldest hunting strategies known to man. It is a very successful strategy and been used world wide for thousands of years. The basic idea is to drive as many animals as possible into a trap of some sort where they can be easily dispatched. The eight drives in the park and the 51 or so in the Indians Peaks Wilderness to the south are all found in the tundra. They were used for trapping elk and not bighorn sheep which require a very different kind of drive. The drives are in the tundra because that is where most of the elk are located in the early fall before they migrate down to the valleys to mate.
All the drives are made of low lines of rock that form a funnel, with ambush pits located at the narrowest part of the funnel. The idea is for older adults, women, and children to move the elk toward the drive area where the walls, leather banners on sticks above the walls, and kids would keep the elk moving in the drive lanes toward the hunters in the ambush pits.
Game drives are used to obtain as much meat as possible in the shortest time possible, and the manos and metates found at high altitude were used to grind the dried (i.e., "jerked") meat and mix it with berries, roots, and animal fat to make pemmican for winter consumption. Pemmican is a very nutritious food and was the equivalent of the modern "power bar", and it could be preserved for a very long time.
The fall of the year is the best time to operate the drives as it is also the richest time of the year in terms of the quantity and variety of food available which means that many people can be supported. Thus, there are also a sufficient number of people (ca. 10 to 30 or more) present to run the drives and especially to process all the meat.
Radiocarbon and projectile point dates from the drives in the park and elsewhere indicate that they were in use for at least 6,000 years. Drives of all kinds for elk, bison, antelope, deer, etc., were not used after the Indians acquired the horse sometime in the mid 1700s as it allowed the Indians to rapidly follow and chase the game, rather than having to slowly follow the game and rely on drives in fixed locations.
Bill Butler, Park Archeologist