What is Archeology?
Archaeologists study remains from the historic period as well as prehistoric Indians. Due to earlier settlements in the east and then westward expansion, the historic/prehistoric boundary varies from area to area in North America.For Yellowstone, the historic period (and written records) begins in the late 18th century.In the park, historic archeology includes the remains of early tourist hotels, Army soldier stations, and historic period Native American sites.The Army managed the park from 1886 to 1918 (the National Park Service began in 1916).Artifact is the general name given to an object that has been modified by people and includes various bone and stone tools and the flakes from their manufacture and repair.Organic materials (wood, bone, basketry, clothing) are only rarely preserved in the park’s environment, so stone artifacts comprises the majority of evidence of precontact (with Europeans) or prehistoric (before written records) lifeways in sites.
Unfortunately, we do not know what early peoples called themselves, so archeologists name different cultures after the first location where they were identified or with a unique artifact or diagnostic tool. A diagnostic tool is one that has a unique and recognizable form and one that is only associated with a particular culture. In the Rocky Mountains and adjacent Great Basin and Northern Plains, most diagnostic tools are projectile points. These artifacts change shape and size as the technology to propel them changes from spear to atlatl to bow and arrow.Atlatl is an Aztec word that is pronounced at-la-tal.The atlatl lengthens the thrower’s arm to create more force when propelling the dart. The dart was a long (five feet or more) shaft that was tipped with a stone point.
Many myths exist about Yellowstone.None is more persistent than the notion that American Indian groups rarely ventured into the area because of their fear of the numerous geysers and hot water features. Evidence has shown, however, that this is not the case.Our current understanding indicates Native Americans visited the area that was to become Yellowstone National Park seasonally for almost 12,000 years.Furthermore, many thermal areas contain evidence that early people camped there.
Archeologists have only recently begun to investigate and understand how prehistoric groups used the park’s upland and mountain environments.Currently we believe that prehistoric people used the park area primarily during the warmer months and did not stay in the center of the park (which is above 7,000 feet) during the winter when elk, deer, and bison migrated to lower elevations in order to escape the deep snow.Human diets depended primarily on hunting the same animals you can see in the park today with little emphasis on plants.
At the Malin Creek site, campsites representing Late Paleoindian (Cody Complex), Late PaleoIndian, Middle Archaic (McKean Complex), Late Archaic (Pelican Lake culture), and Late Prehistoric (Avonlea) were stacked one upon the other and extended from the modern surface to five feet below the surface. At this important site, we can study what different cultures did at the same location including what stones they were making tools out of, what activities they were carrying out, and what food they were eating.Differences between different cultures are assumed to represent cultural preferences.
The Little Ice Age (A.D. 1450-1850) was a world-wide period of cooler weather and evidence of its impact can be seen in the narrowing of Douglas fir tree rings that represent annual growth. During the Little Ice Age, there was a major shift in human activities in the park.Families stayed at lower elevations elsewhere where there was less snow and warmer temperatures, while work parties came to the park to hunt bighorn sheep, collect obsidian, and to carry out other specific short term tasks.The few archeological sites dating to the Little Ice Age are small and contain few artifacts, reflective of their short duration.
Contemporary archeological investigations use a number of researchers from various disciplines to piece together the puzzle of prehistoric societies.Palynology, the study of plant pollen, is important for understanding the various plant communities that occupied the region in the past, and it also helps us understand how the climate has changed through time.Geomorphology, the study of past landforms, provides information on how landforms such as terraces have changed through time, usually in relation to shifting climatic patterns. This helps archeologists understand better where people prefer to live and why. Paleoethnobotany provides us with the understanding of what plants were used by prehistoric groups.
Through the results of these studies, we are beginning to piece together a story of a very dynamic relationship between humans and their environments.People adapt to changing and different environmental conditions through their cultures.Understanding these adaptations is a major focus of archeology. One example is that throughout most of Yellowstone’s human past, fish do not appear to have been considered to be food.Only during a short period of about A.D. 400-900 is there evidence of people eating fish.
While archeology borrows from zoology, botany, and geology, archeology can also help those scientists determine the ages of landforms and what animals and plants were in the park at different times in the past.
Did You Know?
Prior to the establishment of the National Park Service, the U.S. Army protected Yellowstone between 1886 and 1918. Fort Yellowstone was established at Mammoth Hot Springs for that purpose.