Archeology of Yellowstone:Debunking the Myth, America's Eden

Bison graze in the Lamar Valley in fall.

NPS Photo - J. Frank

America's Eden - Excerpt from Engineering Eden
by Jordan Fisher Smith

To early Euro-American visitors, in comparison to New England, Yellowstone certainly looked like a wilderness. But it had been under some kind of human influence for thousands of years before it became a nature-management kindergarten for an otherwise highly advanced civilization that had by then laid a telegraph cable across the bottom of the Atlantic between Ireland and Nova Scotia. In 1959 an eleven-thousand-year-old spear point was discovered during excavation for a new post office in Gardiner, Montana, on the park’s north boundary. About four years later, a ten-thousand-year-old stone projectile point was recovered in southeastern Wyoming, and its mineralogy traced back to Neolithic toolmakers’ quarries at Yellowstone. Along the shoreline of Yellowstone Lake, archeologists excavated extensive hunting camps aged at 9,300 years before the present. One recent chief archeologist at Yellowstone estimated there are 80,000 archeological sites in the park, of which only about 1,800 have been documented.

On stone tools recovered from the Yellowstone Lake sites, highly sensitive DNA technology found traces of the blood of bighorn sheep, elk, rabbits, and other game. Hunting pressure on Yellowstone wildlife was probably heavier before the 1700s, when the cold snap known as the Little Ice Age and epidemics of infectious disease reduced Indian use of the Yellowstone Plateau.

Above the Grand Loop Road south of Mammoth Hot Springs, a once-famous industrial zone known as Obsidian Cliff glints strangely in the sun. Formed by volcanic flows high in the mineral silica, volcanic glass from Obsidian Cliff was prized by native toolmakers for the production of razor-sharp knives, scrapers, and projectile points. Sourced from different deposits, obsidian looks about the same, but depending on where it comes from, its chemical makeup differs. This mineral fingerprint allows archeologists to trace stone implements back to where they were quarried.

In Ohio, over 1,400 airline miles from Yellowstone, hundreds of objects unearthed at a Hopewell culture site were made of Yellowstone obsidian. At another excavation in Indiana, blades made of Yellowstone obsidian were found over 1,200 straight-line miles from the park. By the eighteenth century the tribes that inherited Hopewell territory were decimated by European diseases. The trade routes by which their obsidian made its way from Yellowstone to the Midwest may have been, in the words of one archeologist, “vectors of death,” transmitting obsidian east and deadly microbes west, ahead of white explorers. Contagion came in waves, first on foot, and later by steam. A smallpox epidemic spread into the northern plains between 1780 and 1782, and another in 1837, aboard a steamboat traveling up the Missouri River to Fort Union. In all, according to Yellowstone historian Paul Schullery, aboriginal North America suffered at least twenty-eight epidemics of smallpox, twelve of measles, six of influenza, and four each of diphtheria, plague, and typhus.
The first non-Indian we know of to visit Yellowstone was the fur trapper John Colter. On his return from service with the Lewis and Clark expedition, he was recruited by the Missouri Fur Trading Company to survey new sources of animal pelts and pass the word among the Blackfeet about the company’s new trading post at Fort Union, later the source of contagion in the 1837 smallpox epidemic. In a remarkable five-hundred-mile solo trek in 1807 and 1808, Colter passed through Yellowstone. After 1826 the area was visited regularly during the fur trade, and according to accounts from that time, the Blackfeet, Crow, Sheepeaters, Bannock, and other Shoshone groups were sharing the area for hunting, fishing, and quarrying obsidian.

After microbes did their work, the founding of the national park took place against a backdrop of military mop-up operations. In 1877, some six hundred Nez Perce men, women, and children passed through Yellowstone, fleeing a massacre by Army cavalry with orders to kill them or force them onto a reservation. In a strange juxtaposition of Yellowstone’s past and its ecotourism future, the Nez Perce encountered park visitors on camping excursions whom they took as hostages and, in some cases, shot. The following year the US Army campaigned against the Bannock in the region, and in 1879 against the Sheepeaters in what is now the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness, to the west in central Idaho.

When this dark chapter in American history was over, by the twentieth century, visitors from Chicago or Great Falls could stroll up a Yellowstone trail and imagine themselves as the first humans in a wilderness that had never been entirely free of people since the end of the last ice age. Because Euro-Americans didn’t witness the effects of Indian hunting until after Indian populations had been reduced by infectious disease, we can only conjecture about how they functioned in concert with cougars, bears, wolves, and coyotes in regulating the number of prey species, such as bighorn sheep, deer, elk, bison, moose, and antelope.

The Lamar Valley, an elongated basin of wide-open grassland and sage steppes in the northeast corner of Yellowstone, has long been known as one of the two or three best places in the park to observe wild animals. For most of the twentieth century the valley harbored America’s largest herd of wintering elk. The two-lane road from park headquarters to the Northeast Entrance, which traverses the base of the hills on the valley’s north side, is the only road open through Yellowstone in the winter. Not many years ago, when the elk came down from the high country with the first snows, people would drive out to the Lamar Valley to marvel at the mass of blondish-brown, furry backs shining in the winter light, the forest of antlers, and the sparkly dust of snow as the elk pawed around for something to eat. The northern elk herd, as they were called, were seen as one of the last great wild spectacles of North America, an intimation of how things had once been, before they were altered. Or so people thought at the time.
A short piece southeast along the road through the Lamar Valley from the cluster of log buildings known as the Buffalo Ranch, there is a paved turnout where visitors get out of their cars with their binoculars and spotting scopes to observe herds of bison and pronghorn antelope. From 1989 to 2013, a Park Service educational placard stood facing the road there at waist level. The text was laid out over a large photograph of what you would see on an average summer day from there: grasslands, a row of old cottonwood trees, and wild animals. The text explained that the Lamar Valley supported a remnant of the vast wildlife herds that once roamed North America” above which was the placard’s title, in large letters: AN AMERICAN EDEN.

And so it seemed to any visitor who didn’t know the place’s history. To anyone who did, the Lamar Valley bore less resemblance to Eden than to the Civil War battlefields the Park Service takes care of back east. For decades it was probably the most scientifically contested piece of ground in America. The fight there was about how much scientists ought to manipulate and control nature in order to preserve it.

Arguments are rooted in uncertainty. There is little controversy about things we know for certain. In order to understand the disagreement that began at the Lamar Valley and spread to the rest of Yellowstone we must go back to the early nineteenth century, when what was about to happen to the western United States could be compared to the loss of knowledge of the ancient world when the Library of Alexandria burned to the ground in 48 BCE. But in this case, the “library” that was to be burned—and cut down, dug up, shot out, and sold off—was the information that could have been gathered, had there been anyone with today’s ecological skills to do it, about what nature was and how it had worked before it was altered.

Bibliography

Achenbach, J. 2009. When Yellowstone Explodes. National Geographic August 2009, 56-69.

Doss, P.K. and A. Bleichroth, 2012. Following the Path of Stone: Obsidian Artifacts from Indiana Sourced to Yellowstone Plateau. Yellowstone Science 20(2): 12–14.

Haines, A. 1996-99. The Yellowstone Story: A History of Our First National Park, rev. ed. University Press of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, USA.

Harris, A.G., E. Tuttle, and S. Tuttle. 1995. Geology of National Parks. Kendall-Hunt Publishing, Dubuque, Iowa, USA.

Schullery. P. 2004. Searching for Yellowstone: Ecology and Wonder in the Last Wilderness. Montana Historical Society Press, Helena, Montana, USA.

Taylor, R., J. M. Ashley, and W. W. Locke, III. 1989. Geological Map of Yellowstone National Park. Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana, USA.

Excerpt reprinted from ENGINEERING EDEN: The True Story of a Violent Death, A Trial, and the Fight Over Controlling Nature. Copyright © 2016 by Jordan Fisher Smith. Published by Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Last updated: September 5, 2018