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The Earliest Americans

Celebrate Native American Heritage Month this November by learning about the earliest Americans! Archeological research helps us to understand when the first people arrived within what became the United States, their routes across the continent, and their activities upon arrival.

People first entered North America during the last Ice Age over 13,000 years ago. Some of the Coso people’s rock art was created not long after, or about 12,000 years ago. People entered the Pajarito Plateau—where Bandelier National Monument now sits—about 11,000 years ago, and the caves of Russell Cave National Monument about 10,000 years ago. That’s thousands of years before people living along the Mississippi River built huge complexes of earthworks or before Europeans and Africans arrived on the continent.

Archeologists are still trying to figure out when, where, and how Native peoples populated the different regions that now comprise the United States. See what one archeologist has to say by watching a lecture, The Pleistocene Human Colonization of Interior North America.

For an overview of ancient life in the Midwest, Northeast, and Southeast of the United States, read the Earliest Americans web feature. The feature is based on the Earliest Americans Theme Study, undertaken by archeologists to help communities list significant places associated with ancient Americans to the National Register of Historic Places.

Here’s a recent example of archeology in a national park that investigates the earliest Americans. Archeological research at Yellowstone Lake, within Yellowstone National Park, is helping to resolve key questions about Native American use of the area. It is part of a larger project to define the role of Yellowstone Lake in the lifeways of Native Americans within the northwestern Great Plains, the northern Rocky Mountains, and the far northeastern edge of the Great Basin. Native Americans have used the lake and environs’ resources for at least the last 11,000 years. They traveled from the north, south, east, and west to take advantage of seasonal resources at the lake. Archeologists think that Native Americans were drawn by plant and animal resources to the lake, not fishing or boating.

Want to learn more? Check out Research in the Parks or visit a park near you!

  • (Photo) Bighorn sheep images from the Coso Rock Art District.
  • (Photo) Serpent Mound in Ohio.
  • (NPS photo.
  • (Photo) Depiction of Sand Creek Massacre by Native artist.