Who Were the Fremont People?

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Script from my ARCH365 Episode (click here to listen)

Some of the most spectacular rock art of the Great Basin and western Colorado Plateau was created by the Fremont, but who were the Fremont?

There are so many fascinating prehistoric peoples that made the Great Basin and American Southwest their home. The Ancestral Puebloans of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, the Hohokam irrigation canals and ballcourts of southern Arizona, the gorgeous pottery designs of the Mimbres of New Mexico, and so on, are some of the more well-known prehistoric cultures. Outside of archaeology, one of the lesser recognized, but incredibly unique, prehistoric peoples of the Great Basin and Southwest are the Fremont.

The name for this culture comes from the Fremont River in Utah, where the Navajo and Ute Native American tribes discovered the first Fremont sites. The Fremont lived in the sagebrush and pinon high desert region of the Great Basin and western Colorado Plateau, so areas of Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. They occupied this region from 600 to 1400 AD. It is more difficult to trace the Fremont on the landscape as a distinct culture after 1200 AD. Their lifestyle may have changed after long periods of drought and competition for resources with their neighbors. The Fremont were roughly adjacent to and roughly were contemporaneous with the more famous Ancestral Puebloans, who constructed pueblos and cliff dwellings throughout the southwest.

Well, the very fact that they aren’t easy to classify makes them interesting. This was a diverse culture, differing widely across the landscape. While some Fremont people were building above ground structures, others were constructing subsurface pithouses; some lived in large groups, while others lived in smaller bands—all contemporaneously. Consequently, archaeologists have struggled to define the Fremont as a distinct culture as an entire group since there are so many exceptions. They were not a cohesive group, demonstrating their flexibility to adapt and change.

They were primarily hunter-gatherers, supplementing their diet with farming. Pithouse villages with 10 to 100 houses, dotted the landscape, although it’s unlikely that they were all inhabited at the same time. These small villages tended to be located near streams, where fields could be easily irrigated. Granaries, small structures that stored food, were built into hard to reach places for the lean times. The Fremont built communal structures, essentially an oversized pit house that could accommodate more than just a family; they would also build large structures at the center of their village. Artifacts like turquoise beads and other exotic materials have been found in these structures, suggesting that some kind of ceremonial activities took place.

The Fremont made all kinds of fascinating artifacts and artwork, including clay figurines. They are fragile pieces of art since most were made of unfired clay and are typically not larger than the palm of your hand. These figurines typically have a trapezoidal shape and sometimes have arms, hands, legs, male, female and androgynous forms, hair-dresses, tattoos, jewelry, and so on. In some areas of the southwest, they would have been used for ceremonies, while in others they may have been toys for children.

They also had a unique rock art style that is truly stunning. The rock art includes pecked and painted images of rhomboid to trapezoidal – shaped bodies with broad shoulders, wearing elaborate necklaces, earrings, and headdresses. There are typically zoomorphs, animals, on the panels, such as deer or elk. Figures tend to be located on south or west facing sandstone walls, possibly associated with water or canyon confluences.

The primary way to see Fremont archaeology is through rock art. Dinosaur National Monument has some of the most spectacular Fremont rock art in the west. Just remember that you can’t touch the rock art or remove any artifacts from sites located nearby. That’s unethical and illegal.

Links:

https://www.nps.gov/care/learn/historyculture/fremont.htm

http://historytogo.utah.gov/utah_chapters/american_indians/thefremont.html

Archaeology Podcast Network/ARCH365 Podcast:

https://www.archaeologypodcastnetwork.com/hq-downloads/arch365-289

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