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RANGE CREEK CANYON, Utah (AP) -- The newly discovered ruins of an ancient civilization in this remote eastern Utah canyon could reveal secrets about the Fremont people, descendants of the continent's original paleoindians who showed up before the time of Christ to settle much of present-day Utah.
Archaeologists estimate as many as 250 households occupied this canyon over a span of centuries ending about 750 years ago. They left half-buried stone-and-mortar houses, cob houses and granary caches, and painted colorful trapezoidal figures with spiky hair styles on canyon walls.
"It's like finding a Van Gogh in your grandmother's attic," said Utah state archaeologist Kevin Jones.
The Fremont, named after a Spanish explorer who never met them, remain a poorly understood collection of widely scattered archaic groups. Yet they represent a tenuous link to the earliest inhabitants of North America, who are believed to have arrived by way of the Bering Strait more than 10,000 years ago.
As a culture, the Fremont were distinguished by their style of basket weaving, animal-claw moccasins and dual survival strategy of farming and hunting.
Their everyday tools and gray pottery were different from the farming-dependent Anasazi south of the Colorado River -- even as they shared a similar fate. Both cultures packed up and left about the same time for reasons not fully explained -- the conventional explanation of drought is coming under question. What became of the Fremont and Anasazi also is a mystery.
The earliest traces of Fremont life show up three centuries before the birth of Christ, but they disappeared around A.D. 1250. This unlooted canyon -- turned over by a rancher who kept it secret for more than half a century -- could have been one of their final strongholds.
It could reveal why the Fremont were driven out of Utah and possibly left in isolated pockets to die off. More recently, makeshift sites found in northwest Colorado suggest to archaeologists they were forced into exile from their homelands by Numic-speaking Ute, Pauite and Shoshone tribes.
Utah's Indian leaders take exception to that, believing the Fremont are their ancestors who were absorbed into their more modern tribes. "The sacred belief is that we are all related," said Mel Brewster, an archaeologist and historic preservation officer for Utah's tiny Goshute tribe of Skull Valley.
Already, archaeologists in Range Creek have documented about 300 sites -- pit houses, granaries and rock art panels -- but they've surveyed only about 5 percent of the canyon drainage and expect its upper reaches and side canyons to yield evidence of hunting and gathering, of stone tools and wild plant foods.
Range Creek differs from other, better-known ancient sites in Utah, Arizona or Colorado because it has been left virtually untouched by looters, with the ground still littered in places with arrowheads, beads and pottery shards.
But the scenery of Range Creek is more spectacular than the ruins, which consist mostly of stubby remains of pit houses. "You could stand right on it and not know it," said Corinne Springer, an archaeologist and Range Creek's new caretaker.
Still, this researcher's canyon offers a glimpse of the full "effervescence" of Fremont life and a rare opportunity to witness "so many places where people lived and worked and farmed and got resources," Jones said.
Among recent finds are a paddle-like wood shovel; a rare bundle of arrow shafts, found wedged in a canyon wall; a perfectly preserved beehive-shaped granary with a cap stone, still a third full with piles of parched wild grass seed and corn; and a pair of human remains from surrounding federal land.
The remains were covered with dirt and left in place.
"My dad told me we owned the land, but not the dead people," said Waldo Wilcox, 74, who kept outsiders at bay with a gate that went up in 1947. Earlier this year his 4,200-acre ranch was turned over to state ownership. Wilcox moved to Green River and retired.
A few weeks ago Wilcox showed some American Indian leaders how he kept the ancient sites undisturbed "so I won't take the blame 20 years from now." Among items taken by other, previous landowners from the canyon are unfired clay figurines, usually impressed with facsimiles of hair bobs and jewelry.
Until recently, Range Creek was all but unknown. An expedition from Harvard's Peabody Museum made a stop in 1929, but visited only a few sites before calling it a day. Only in the past three summers have archaeologists and graduate students quietly conducted a labor-intensive survey. They kept the full significance of Range Creek under wraps until news reports surfaced about the land transfer in June.
Despite the publicity, Range Creek over the summer had only one suspected case of looting -- two knife blades flagged on the ground are missing -- and few random visitors outside of organized tours, Springer said.
The ranch is a two-hour, axle-breaking crawl over rock-strewn roads -- 34 jarring miles from the nearest unbroken pavement, which happens to be the most remote stretch of U.S. Route 6, a highway that traces the 50-mile crescent of the nearly impenetrable Book Cliffs.
Up this road, where Wilcox says two head of cattle were lost over the side, the road plunges 1,500 feet into Range Creek.
To safeguard the canyon, the Utah Department of Natural Resources is rushing to adopt an interim management plan that will restrict hunting, prohibit camping and require visitors on foot or horseback to get permits and guides. On Wednesday the Utah Legislature appropriated $152,000 for regular ground patrols and aircraft surveillance over the winter.
So far, the canyon's subtle charms tell two tales: traces of larger villages just off the canyon bottom and defensive retreats as high as 900 feet atop pinnacle and mesa tops, Jones said.
On low canyon terraces the Fremont lived more sensibly, keeping watch on crops that produced a gritty diet of corn, squash and wild grass seeds. They could also keep watch for game, and judging by the animal waste bone left around pit houses, they were proficient hunters, favoring bighorn sheep.
Archaeologists believe more carbon-dating will show the Fremont retreated to the higher positions toward the end of their tenure here, suggesting they were feeling pressure from other tribes moving through their territory.
The Fremont would have used ladders, ropes or cords to reach some of their granaries, set at impossible heights "where you risk life and limb getting to them," said Utah journalist and archaeologist Jerry Spangler. Many cliffside caches are inaccessible today except by use of modern climbing gear and haven't been visited.
The Fremont may have been expert climbers, but at other sites in Utah some of their skeletons exhibited the trauma of falling injuries, Jones said.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)