Adapted from: Madsen, David B. 1989. Exploring the Fremont. Utah Museum of Natural History/University of Utah, Salt Lake City.
Originally considered to be an inferior, out-back branch of the well studied Anasazi culture, the Fremont are now considered to be a distinct and unique prehistoric culture that once inhabited the western Colorado Plateau and the eastern Great Basin. This confusion stemmed largely from the wide variety of lifestyles represented in the Fremont archaeological record, indicating that the people we now call Fremont were less socially organized than their Anasazi counterparts, but also highly adaptable. "Fremont" is actually a catch-all term used to describe scattered groups of hunters and farmers as diverse as the landscapes they inhabited and somewhat difficult to classify. In fact, anthropologist David B. Madsen (1989) states that the name Fremont "may be more reflective of our own need to categorize things than it is a reflection of how closely related these people were" and that "variation is the key word in describing them." Thus there is not a distinctly defined Fremont lifestyle, as some were settled farmers, and some were nomads, and still others shifted between these lifestyles, either seasonally or over the course of a lifetime. It is possible that people living in the region spoke several dialects or even different languages. Yet, although the Fremont do not fit into standard archaeological classification schemes as easily as other ancient cultures, certain behaviors and living patterns tie this variable cultural group together.
Most archaeologists believe that between 2500 and 1500 years ago, the existing groups of hunter-gatherers on the Colorado Plateau and eastern Great Basin gradually developed into the Fremont. By 2000 years ago, corn and other cultivated plants were being grown east and west of the central Wasatch Plateau in what is now central Utah, although these early Fremont farmers did not build settled villages, but remained nomadic for most of the year. Farming and the associated pottery making gradually spread from this region to the rest of the Fremont area, which includes most of present day Utah and extends well into central Nevada, and slightly into southern Idaho and western Colorado. By 750 A.D., settled village life had developed in the heart of the Fremont region, with a number of farming villages consisting of semi-subterranean timber and mud pithouses and above-ground granaries. Fremont farming techniques appear to have been as sophisticated as those of other contemporary farming societies, involving water diversion techniques such as irrigation. This lifestyle continued relatively unchanged along the drainages on the sides of the Wasatch Plateau for about 500 years, although hunting and gathering remained important, especially on the fringes of the Fremont region.
Archaeologists studying the Fremont have found only four distinct artifact categories which readily identify this society from others of its time, since pithouse design, horticulture, and projectile points were similar across cultures of this era. The four "classic" Fremont artifacts are as follows: 1) a unique one-rod-and-bundle basketry style, 2) moccasins constructed with the dew claws a deer or mountain sheep forming the heel, 3) a distinctive art style used in pictographs, petroglyphs, and clay figures depicting trapezoidal human figures bedecked in necklaces and blunt hairstyles, and 4) thin-walled gray pottery. Fremont archaeology sites, ranging from villages to small camp-sites, have been identified in virtually every ecosystem of the Great Basin/Colorado Plateau region. Artifacts such as snare traps, rabbit nets, fur clothing, leather mittens and pouches, and bows and arrows attest to the complex and diverse adaptations the Fremont people developed in order to reside in this imposing environment.
Due to generally favorable climatic conditions and a culminating indigenous knowledge of the area, the era between roughly 700 A.D. and 1250 A.D. was the height of Fremont culture, as well as other southwestern prehistoric cultures. The Fremont's southern neighbors, the Anasazi, also flourished during this time. With few exceptions, the Anasazi inhabited the south-central portion of the Colorado Plateau, particularly the Four Corners region, while the Fremont culture did not extend south of the Colorado River. In fact, Colorado Plateau Fremont sites are less common than Great Basin sites and are generally smaller and less developed, while Great Basin sites tend to be larger and more village-like. The nature of the interface between the Fremont and the Anasazi remains a fascinating archaeological question: How much interaction existed between these people? A handful of sites in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the Henry Mountains near the current Arizona/Utah border indicate cultural mingling between the two groups, including trade and even possible intermarriage. Generally speaking, however, Anasazi archaeological features diminish and Fremont features increase as one moves north along the Green River.
Between 1250 and 1500 A.D., the Fremont culture vanished. As in the case of the Anasazi collapse, the exact reasons for this disappearance are not known, but there are several possible factors which likely worked together to bring about this change. Climatic changes, including decreased precipitation, may have forced the Fremont to increasingly rely on wild food resources as farming became difficult. In addition, Numic-speaking peoples, the ancestors of the Ute, Paiute and Shoshoni peoples, are believed to have migrated into the region around this time, and may have displaced the Fremont in the competition for limited resources, or absorbed the Fremont into their own culture. Whatever the case for the Fremont demise, it is clear that these resourceful and impressive ancients had great knowledge of the land that they inhabited, allowing them to thrive for over fifteen hundred years. Today, the Fremont Indian State Park in Clear Creek, south-central Utah, protects the largest Fremont site ever excavated in Utah, including forty pithouses, twenty granaries and countless artifacts and rock art panels. Other notable Fremont archaeology sites include those found in Dinosaur National Monument, and Zion and Arches National Parks.
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