The Bears Ears Controversy

It’s estimated that the Bears Ears region in Southeast Utah could have tens of thousands of archaeological sites, most of which are unprotected. Some people are encouraging the Obama Administration to designate this vast area a national monument, while others are strongly opposed to the idea.

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An ancient granary is one of the region’s numerous archaeological sites. Credit: Josh Ewing.
An ancient granary is one of the region’s numerous archaeological sites. Credit: Josh Ewing.

Fall 2016: By Julian Smith.

San Juan County covers almost 8,000 square miles of Utah’s southeast corner. It is the largest and the poorest county in the state, and about half of its 15,000 residents are Navajo and Ute Indians. People have occupied its striking landscape of mountains, mesas, and river canyons for thousands of years. The Bears Ears region may have more archaeological sites than any other county in the United States, but many have not been documented and are effectively unprotected. A proposal to set aside a large part of the county as a national monument has set off a lively debate over how the federal government should go about protecting cultural resources on public lands in the West.

Utah’s quarter of the Four Corners region, where it joins Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, centers on a distinctive pair of 9,000-foot buttes called the Bears Ears. Visible for miles, they overlook Natural Bridges National Monument and Cedar Mesa, a broad plateau sliced by sandstone canyons and bounded by the Colorado and San Juan rivers.

Paleo-Indians arrived here as early as 11,000 B.C., and Archaic hunter-gatherers roamed the area for thousands of years after the end of the last Ice Age. During the Basketmaker II period from 500 B.C. to A.D. 300, people farmed maize and wove fine baskets and sandals. Clustered pithouses eventually evolved into stone masonry buildings during the Ancestral Pueblo period of A.D. 750 to 1300, when tens of thousands of people called this part of the Colorado Plateau home. Most inhabitants left by the late thirteenth century, possibly due to climate change, overpopulation, or both. Some of these migrants joined the Hopi and Rio Grande pueblos to the south and east. Ancestors of today’s Navajo and Ute tribes arrived by the 1500s, followed by Mormon settlers in the late nineteenth century.

Summary. Read More in our Fall 2016 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 3. Browse Content of this Issue: Fall 2016.

Browse Articles Summaries from our last issue, Summer 2016 .

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1 COMMENT

  1. Looking at pictures of the Wolfman Panel with bullet holes in it, I can see that you want readers to believe they are recent holes. Those bullet holes have been there at least thirty years and most likely more. Why not spend some money having those holes dated by scientific means? Ah, but then we might find out that early century cowboys actually shot those holes.

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