A group of Hispanic families that settled in southern Colorado in the 1800s lived in such harmony with nature that their lifestyle can teach us some important environmental lessons today, according to a University of Denver archaeologist.

After 20 years of excavating remote settlements, Bonnie Clark recently published a book saying that bringing back the old Hispanic way of life in that region would do wonders in developing better environmental protection programs.

In her study "On the Edge of Purgatory: An Archaeology of Place in Hispanic Colorado," Clark explores the "unwritten history" of the Latino population in the southern part of the state, combining archaeological excavations and contemporary ethnography with historical accounts.

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"The area includes numerous sites of archaeological interest related to Hispanic families that came to the region in the mid-19th century and that from 1860 to 1880 made up more than 90 percent of the population," she tells Efe.

Clark began her archaeological work in southern Colorado in 1993 when she was invited to join a team that was cataloguing places of archaeological and architectonic interest in the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site, which for the last 30 years has belonged to the Department of Defense.

She returned to the area in the year 2000 to carry out excavations whose results were included in the doctoral dissertation she completed in 2003 at the University of California, Berkeley.

The recent attention the area has received from state and federal authorities is helping to rescue or preserve materials related to the early Hispanics.

"It certainly helps that Ken Salazar, now U.S. interior secretary, and his brother John, Colorado's commissioner of agriculture, are from the San Luis Valley, since they know the people and the issues in southern Colorado," Clark said.

Clark and her team are focused on La Placita, a spot where Hispanic families lived for at least 10 years in the late 1800s.

Those families made full use of whatever resources the land offered, collecting water from the rain and streams running down the mountainside, facing their houses south to maximize sunlight, using local materials to build homes, and only eating what they could hunt or grow.

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But when railroads and the mining industry moved in around 1880 it marked "the end of an era," since the men started taking jobs far away and eventually this land was abandoned.

"Anglos took over the region and the history of the Hispanic presence here was forgotten. But the physical traces of that presence are still there, from their architecture to their waste," Clark says.

For example, the house of Teofilo Trujillo, who arrived in the San Luis Valley in 1866, was burned down by a group of Anglo assailants in 1902, stripping the family of their home and their fields.

Teofilo's eldest son Pedro built another house in Monte Vista, which still exists and was recently included in the National Register of Historic Places.

Up to 1900, only 18 percent of the Hispanics were still in possession of their lands and homes. Which is why Clark describes her work as an "archaeology of the marginalized without history."

According to Clark, the Hispanics of that era teach us an important lesson today, that of "living off the land using the necessary resources, but without overdoing it."

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