• Rainbow over Half Dome

    Yosemite

    National Park California

Archeology

Graphic of archeology overview

NPS archeologists study the past in order to understand cultural connections.

Archeology is the study of the human past--namely of artifacts and the people who used them. Some envision archeology like a puzzle left by past generations, each piece helping to complete a picture of time, location and culture. Others consider the science of archeology an invasive study of past people and civilizations that disturbs sacred space where the people and their belongings are resting in peace. It is the intention of the National Park Service to honor the area's American Indians and descendents of historic-era people and to foster a respectful understanding within Yosemite National Park of those whose stories might not have been recorded.

 
Ranger holding a piece of obsidian

Yosemite's archeologists have documented 1,500 archeological sites that hold remnants of the past, like this obsidian projectile point.

Alex Saenz

The study of local cultures broadens an understanding of the landscape, the people, their history and, ultimately, of ourselves. The people come first. The research, documentation, and education are just ways of honoring these people. So, who were these people? Many American Indian people, speaking different languages and practicing different cultural ways, were living in the park when the first Euro-Americans set foot on this landscape. These included Paiutes, Miwoks, Yokuts and Mono peoples. African-American Buffalo Soldiers of the U.S. Cavalry were some of the first rangers in the park. Basque sheepherders moved through the meadows of the high country, and hundreds of Italian and Chinese laborers built the first roads and trails into Yosemite Valley.

When Did Anthopologists Begin to Study Yosemite?

Anthropologists began studying Yosemite’s cultural heritage in the late 1800s. Since then, archeologists have documented more than 1,500 archeological sites that hold material remnants of past lifeways. By systematically study things left behind—such as tools, ornaments, buildings, food remains, changed landscapes, and indicators of ancient environments—archeologists decipher a cultural chronology and the processes that underlie human behavior. Yosemite archeologists find and document about 25 new sites each year.

 

What are the most common items found at an archeological site? Obsidian flakes—which are fragments of volcanic glass left over from making or sharpening stone tools. And, each flake can reveal many clues. X-Ray fluorescence tests determine the exact geographic source of the obsidian, which helps tell the story of trade relationships. Obsidian hydration tests help archeologists know when the flake was made, and the locations of obsidian flake scatters throughout the park create maps of travel routes, village and camp sites, and hunting areas. Plus, the size and shape of the flakes indicates the type of spear, arrowhead or other tool made at the site.

 

How Old Are Some of Yosemite's Artifacts?

The oldest known evidence of humans in the region reaches back as far as 10,000 years. Archeologists differentiate between prehistoric archeology and historic archeology. Prehistoric refers to the time period prior to Euro-American contact that occurred in the Yosemite area in 1851. (Prehistoric sites include seasonal villages, hunting camps, ceremonial sites, and gathering areas.) Historic refers to the time period from the time of contact with Euro American people in 1851 to a point in time about 50 years ago. From an archeologist's point of view, something must be 50 years old or older to be considered historic. Historic archeological resources in Yosemite include remains of early homesteads, mining and logging operations, tourist and NPS activities.

 
Historic bottle

Bottles and other objects 50 years or older are of interest to archeologists.

  • Anything more than 50 years is considered historic and should be left in place. Historic bottles often have bubbles or discoloration, historic cans and metal debris are often rusted, historic ceramics have maker’s mark stamps indicating when and where they were made.

What is the Goal of Yosemite's Archeologists?

Archeology is an important part of understanding our collective past and determining how culture has changed, and was changed by, this place we now call Yosemite. Archeologists uncover clues about historic cultures, economic systems, settlement patterns, demography, and social organizations—elements of culture and society that are often missing from written documentation. Part of the mission of Yosemite National Park is:

  • To preserve and protect the historic and prehistoric cultural material.
  • To identify, document and study, in cooperation with local tribes, these resources, and to provide information to park managers, the professional community and the public so these resources are managed appropriately.
  • To assist with educational efforts to help forge a meaningful link between the resources, the people, their history, and the land.

Did You Know?

American Indians use traditional ignition methods on a prescribed fire project

The indigenous people of Yosemite Valley have used fire as a tool for thousands of years. Fire was used to encourage the growth of plants used for basket making and to promote the growth of the black oak--a sun loving species--and a staple food source for American Indians from this region.