Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Genesis for Shadows on the Trail by John Bradford Branney

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The seed for the novel Shadows on the Trail sprouted on a warm summer morning on a beautiful ranch on the high plains of northern Colorado. Since I was a child, my passion has been to search for the artifacts left behind by prehistoric humans. For three decades, I had hunted for prehistoric artifacts two or three times a year on this Colorado ranch. The ranch sits in a large bowl shaped valley surrounded by prairie and sandstone bluffs. During prehistoric times, a natural spring supplied the water for a stream that meandered down the length of the valley. The water in the stream attracted animals, which in turn attracted prehistoric humans.     

Over the years, I have found several hundred prehistoric artifacts in this valley, many of them stone projectile points, better known as arrowheads and spear points. From an archaeological perspective, stone projectile points are a reliable indicator for determining the relative age of an archaeological site. Throughout prehistoric time in North America, humans changed both the physical features of the stone projectile points and the technology used in making them. As an analogy, modern man has changed the style and technology of automobiles every decade or so while prehistoric humans changed the styles and technology of stone projectile point types every few centuries or so.        
           From the different types of projectile points I have found, it is possible to put together a complete prehistory of human occupancy in this northern Colorado valley. Nomadic hunters and gatherers first came to the valley near the end of the last ice age, sometime around 13,000 years ago, and humans periodically visited the valley all the way up through the historical Indian tribes of the 1800s.
        On this particular summer day in northern Colorado I was walking in the sand of the dry streambed when I noticed a large piece of chert (a rock type used to make prehistoric tools) lying on a small mound of sand. I knew immediately I had found a prehistoric artifact of great importance. Before picking the artifact up, I studied it from every angle. Finally, I pulled a camera from my backpack and took several photographs of the artifact the way it was found, in situ. After what seemed like an eternity, I picked the artifact up and brushed away centuries of accumulated dirt and sand. One side of this prehistoric artifact had hardened deposits of limestone encrusted on it, another indicator for great antiquity. I gazed at the prehistoric artifact and smiled, knowing that I was the first human to touch the artifact in approximately 11,000 years.

Four inch long discoidal biface made from Alibates chert,
a rock originating from a prehistoric quarry in Texas.

       Archaeologists call the type of prehistoric artifact I found a discoidal biface or core, a technical name for a large and flat disc-shaped tool made by prehistoric humans for a specific purpose. The prehistoric maker of this discoidal biface had hammered on both sides of the rock, creating a sharp edge around the entire circumference of the rock. The prehistoric human then used this artifact as an all-purpose tool for scraping animal hides, chopping wood, and cutting through animal bone and tendons.
Besides being an all-purpose tool, a discoidal biface served another very important function. Since these nomadic prehistoric hunters were not always near a rock quarry or source of rock, they also used the large discoidal biface as a portable rock supply. When the prehistoric human needed a new stone tool or projectile point, he or she simply hammered off a smaller piece of rock from the discoidal biface and made the new tool, right there on the spot.
          The discoidal biface I found that day in northern Colorado had something even more special about it. The prehistoric human had made it from Alibates chert, a rock type only found on the Panhandle of Texas. This led me to surmise that the prehistoric hunter made the original discoidal biface in Texas and then transported it over five hundred miles north to Colorado where he either lost it or discarded it.
Reverse side of the discoidal biface showing
carbonate deposits formed on the rock.   
Finding Alibates chert in northern Colorado is not common, but it is not rare either. However, this was the very first discoidal biface I had ever found made from Alibates chert. Why did this prehistoric human carry this large piece of Alibates chert from Texas when there were numerous sources of rock within a stone’s throw (pardon the pun) of where I found this artifact? I believe the main reason was that prehistoric humans were enamored with the mystical beauty of Alibates chert.
           Alibates chert is a very distinctive, multicolored rock with colors ranging from maroon to red and gray to black. Mix in some white and tan with banded shades of pink, blue, purple, and brown and Alibates chert exhibits a rainbow of colors. Prehistoric humans were fascinated with its bright and exotic colors and believed that the rock held mystical power over the animals they hunted.       
         When I found this ancient discoidal biface made from Texas rock, my mind wanted to know who made this artifact, what was he or she like, and what ended up happening to him or her? Shadows on the Trail is my version of the adventure that led to this discoidal biface travelling from Texas to northern Colorado at the end of the last ice age. The main characters of the adventure belong to a real culture of prehistoric humans called the Folsom People, a mystical group or hunters and gatherers who roamed western North America from about 10,200 to over 10,900 years ago. Folsom people left behind beautifully crafted stone projectile points that had the distinguishing characteristic of a wide flute or channel running from the tip to base on both sides of the projectile point (See examples of Folsom projectile points and an end scraper below). Today, finding a Folsom projectile point out on the prairie or plains is the equivalent of finding the Holy Grail. Folsom projectile points are the rarest and arguably, the finest made projectile points in North America’s prehistoric past.  
Discoidal biface surrounded by Folsom dart points. Age between 10,900 to 10,200 years old.
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