The earliest evidence of humans in the Zion National Park area is about 10,000 BC, from ancient spear points found among the remains of woolly mammoths and other Ice Age species. By 8500 BC, most of the larger mammals had been hunted to extinction, leading hunters to focus on smaller prey.
Hunter-gatherers used the region around Zion National Park from 6,000 BC to 500 AD. Called the Archaic period, little is known of these small bands that hunted game and collected wild nuts, berries and seeds.
The basic Archaic toolkit included dart points, drills and flaked stone knives. The dart points were attached to wooden shafts and propelled by throwing sticks called “atlatls” that provided greater leverage for throwing.
By 300 BC, some archaic groups began cultivating small patches of squash and corn along rivers and near springs. They were called “Basketweavers” by archeologists, because they left behind numerous coiled and twined baskets, but little else in the rare cave or burial site. Food storage emerged as a major challenge, which the Basketweavers met by building storage cists and pithouses.
Full-time agriculture emerged during the Formative period (A.D.500-1300), as two distinctive groups, the Virgin Anasazi and Parowan Fremont, settled in the region with their pueblos, masonry construction, grinding stones, ceramic pottery and bows and arrows. Archeologists suspect the southern Virgin Anasazi were mostly dependent upon cultivated foods, while the northern Parowan Fremont used hunting and gathering as supplements to cultivated food harvests.
Certainly there was greater variability among the Fremont — some were sedentary farmers, others were wide-ranging nomads and others moved back and forth between those life styles, according to the dictates of the seasons, climate variability or pressures from other groups.
Virgin Anasazi added beans to their basic crops, while they farmed the river bottoms of the Virgin River and major tributaries. Meanwhile, Parowan Fremont peoples cultivated a cold- and drought-tolerant form of corn (Fremont Dent variety) at higher altitudes, along streams or near springs. Both groups were accomplished irrigationists.
There has been some debate in the archeological community as to whether the Fremont could be considered the Anasazi’s rustic or “country cousin” relations, but it seems the Fremont lived separate lives from the Anasazi, though the cultures had frequent contacts involving trade in the Kolob Canyon area.
The Anasazi began to build large villages or pueblos in the 1100s and 1200s, also developing a distinctive pottery style called Mesa Verde Black-on-White. Roads connecting Anasazi sites throughout the Southwest were being built.
Archeological records of the Parowan Fremont are distinguished by trapezoidal, anthropomorphic figures in petroglyphs, as well as thin-walled grey pottery.
The Parowan Gap Petroglyphs carved in boulders near Parowan (northeast of Cedar City) are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Both groups vanished from the archeological record of southern Utah between 1300 and 1350 AD — hammered by severe droughts in the 11th and 12th centuries, as well as by catastrophic flooding. They may also have faced serious competition from the numerous Numic-language speakers (Paiute, Shoshone, Goshute) who entered the region by 1100 AD.
Archeologists have noticed that it seems that the Anasazi just picked up and moved away — almost as if they expected to return momentarily to their homes and fields.
These new Numic-language groups were hunters and gatherers driven by seasonal availability of game animals, seeds and nuts. No one was entirely dependent upon cultivated foods, although the Southern Paiute planted corn, squash and sunflowers to supplement their wild foods. This has been called the neo-Archaic era, since it more closely reflected the Archaic era life patterns, than the more sedentary life patterns of the Formative era and the dependence upon cultivated crops and pueblos.
The Southern Paiute lived in southwestern Utah from 1200 AD. The largest populations lived along the Virgin and Muddy rivers, where they practiced limited irrigation agriculture. They raised corn, squash, melons, gourds, sunflowers, and, later, winter wheat.
Eventually the Southern Paiute were supplanted by Mormon settlers. The Northern Paiute decisively won the Truckee battle of the Pyramid Lake War, but failed to mount an effective offense thereafter in 1860. The Southern Paiute refused to relocate to the Uintah Reservation, eventually seeking wage labor and raising cattle in southwest Utah.
According to the University of Northern Arizona, the Southern Paiute received $7.25 million in 1972 from the U.S. government in a lawsuit over tribal lands that had been wrongfully taken. Many bands used this money to start small businesses.