Thursday, June 23, 2011

Living Archaeology: Culturally Scarred Trees Legacy of Ute Tribes

For centuries native Americans peeled away the outer bark of ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) to obtain the tree's soft inner bark (cambium layer) for food and medicine. In addition to using the inner layer of bark for food and a medicinal tea, the Utes used the sap to waterproof containers and the bark to make cradleboards. Peeling scars the tree.



Culturally scarred tree. Note ragged edge at top, probably cut with sharpened stone and pulled down. Photo date 1998 by Jo Beckwith.

Today these centuries-old trees, known as culturally scarred or peeled trees, mark the presence of Ute Indians who once lived here long ago.  Culturally scarred trees are defined as "a tree that has been altered by native people as part of their traditional use of the forests." Culturally scarred trees are an important part of the archaeological and historical record of the Utes.


Culturally scarred tree near Guffey, Colorado.  Healing tissue generally obscures tool marks.  Photo date 1998 by Jo Beckwith.
Culturally scarred trees provide information about Ute lifeways, including subsistence patterns, population movements, ritual events, and social organization of the Utes during the time they occupied this area. Additionally, scarred trees disclose areas of occupation, mark paths the Utes followed, and indicate food resources.

When peeling trees, the Utes would make a horizontal cut through the bark on the outside of the tree with a hatchet or sharp stone. Hatchets cut straight lines while a sharp stone left jagged lines. After making a cut on the tree, a sharpened branch or pole was inserted under the cut and the bark was pried away from the tree. Strips of inner bark were then removed from the outer bark with a scraper. The oval or rectangular-shaped scars left by the Utes on ponderosa pine trees can be very large—up to eight feet long and two feet wide.

Not all scars found on trees were made by Utes. Forest fires leave a triangular-shaped scar with the widest edge along the bottom of the tree. Scars caused by lightning are long and thin, extending along the length of the tree. At times lightning scars spiral around the tree. Animals leave scars, such as claw and teeth marks, which are often visible.

Tree-ring dating at several Colorado sites, conducted by Golden archaeologist Marilyn Martorano, shows the Utes peeled most of the culturally scarred trees between 1815 and 1875. This period was one of profound change in Colorado: first rugged trappers arrived; then miners came searching for gold; soon farmers and ranchers followed—all pushing the Utes from their land. As more people swarmed into the region, food became scarce, causing more trees to be peeled by the Utes.
Culturally scarred tree located in the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Florissant, Colorado.  The width and length of these scars vary.  National Park Service Photo.
There are a number of culturally scarred trees in the Pike National Forest, the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, and a number of scarred trees over 200 years old in the Manitou Experimental Forest north of Woodland Park.

Since the maximum lifespan of the ponderosa pine tree is between 300-600 years, this important archaeological resource is quickly disappearing as these trees begin to die from natural causes. The National Historic Preservation Act protects these trees.
Scarred tree about seven miles north of Divide, Colorado. This is a spruce tree.  Photo date 2011 by S. Veatch
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This scarred tree is on the road north of Divide. When Ponderosa trees get this puzzle-piece look in the thick bark they are at least 150 years old.  Photo date 2011 by S. Veatch.

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