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Last glacial–interglacial environments in the southern Rocky Mountains, USA and implications for Younger Dryas-age human occupation

  • Christy E. Briles (a1), Cathy Whitlock (a2) and David J. Meltzer (a3)


The last glacial-interglacial transition (LGIT; 19–9 ka) was characterized by rapid climate changes and significant ecosystem reorganizations worldwide. In western Colorado, one of the coldest locations in the continental US today, mountain environments during the late-glacial period are poorly known. Yet, archaeological evidence from the Mountaineer site (2625 m elev.) indicates that Folsom-age Paleoindians were over-wintering in the Gunnison Basin during the Younger Dryas Chronozone (YDC; 12.9–11.7 ka). To determine the vegetation and fire history during the LGIT, and possible explanations for occupation during a period thought to be harsher than today, a 17-ka-old sediment core from Lily Pond (3208 m elev.) was analyzed for pollen and charcoal and compared with other high-resolution records from the southern Rocky Mountains. Widespread tundra and Picea parkland and low fire activity in the cold wet late-glacial period transitioned to open subalpine forest and increased fire activity in the Bølling–Allerød period as conditions became warmer and drier. During the YDC, greater winter snowpack than today and prolonged wet springs likely expanded subalpine forest to lower elevations than today, providing construction material and fuel for the early inhabitants. In the early to middle Holocene, arid conditions resulted in xerophytic vegetation and frequent fire.


Corresponding author

*Corresponding author at: Monash University, Clayton Campus, School of Geography and Environmental Science, Building 11, Wellington Road, Melbourne, Victoria 3800, Australia. E-mail address: (C.E. Briles).


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