Archeology of Yellowstone:Debunking the Myth, Seasonal Use of Yellowstone

A beautiful Yellowstone sunset highlights the high country.

NPS Photo - J. Frank

Seasonal Use of Yellowstone
by Thomas James

Historically there have been narratives that Yellowstone was either sparsely occupied by Native American groups or never inhabited by them at all. These accounts are at odds with both the wealth of prehistoric archeological sites in the park, and ethnographic accounts and oral traditions of the park’s 26 associated tribes. A more recent narrative is one of Native Americans coming into the park seasonally, either as nomadic groups following game or as semi-sedentary peoples who moved between fixed settlements that were occupied seasonally. Research efforts have informed us that prior to the creation of the park, people moved seasonally from one established location to another to access different resources as they became available. We have three major avenues of research on the question of seasonal use of the park: history, ethnography, and archeology.

The historic account, written by the early European American park staff and perpetuated until somewhat recently, says the park was barely occupied in prehistory by small bands of Sheepeaters and other Native American populations shied away from it. This account indicates Native Americans had no interest in the park or its resources after the park was founded and the Indian Wars came to an end. Early ethnographic accounts likewise didn’t touch much on Yellowstone; however, some information about our affiliated tribes was collected. More recent ethnographic accounts contain more nuance, and start to paint a picture of year-round use by some groups such as the Sheepeater Shoshone and occasional visits by other groups like the Blackfeet (Nabokov and Loendorf 2002).

Archeology is our most useful tool in trying to decipher past lifeways; however, there are challenges in interpreting seasonal use of the park from archeological data. Seasonality in archeology is often interpreted through faunal and botanical artifacts, as these items are often available only during part of the year and their presence reflects the time of year they were used by site occupants.

Unfortunately, the highly acidic soils of Yellowstone’s volcanic environment are often unconducive to the preservation of these organic materials. Although these types of fragile specimens are underrepresented in the park’s archeological record, they are present in some cases and help us determine the seasons when people might have used those sites.

Fish bones are one type of faunal remains in the archeological record which help us infer seasonality. Though direct evidence of prehistoric fishing on Yellowstone Lake is lacking in the form of boats, bones, and piscine protein residues on tools (Johnson 2002, MacDonald 2013), we extrapolate that native peoples engaged in fishing using ethnographic information (Nabokov and Loendorf 2002), as well as the occasional stone net sinker recovered along the lakeshore (Johnson 2002). Ethnographic reports indicate Shoshone peoples, including the mountain-dwelling Tukudika, or Sheep Eaters, were voracious consumers of fish. Fishing weirs constructed from brush are highly perishable. Although we have no evidence of them in the park, based on historic and ethnographic accounts they were a well-known phenomenon among all Shoshone people (Nabokov and Loendorf 2002). Their presence cannot be discounted or confirmed at Yellowstone Lake, however, based on our current data. The best time for using weirs for catching native cutthroat trout, as well as other native fish such as grayling or whitefish, is during the spawning runs which take place in spring.

We also have direct evidence of fishing along the Gardiner River and the Yellowstone River near the Black Canyon (Johnson 2002, Vivian et al. 2008). In addition to a fishing weight, large amounts of fish bone have been located in buried intact archeological deposits on a fluvial terrace overlooking the Yellowstone River. The nature of the site would lend itself well to the installation of fish weirs during the spawning season. This site’s location on a fluvial terrace resulted in silt-laden soils that are more conducive to the preservation of organic materials than volcanic soils, which helped preserve large amounts of piscine and mammalian bone along with botanical remains (Vivian et al. 2008). Botanical artifacts identified included the remains of phacelia, cattail, sagebrush, juniper, pine and Douglas-fir. From a dietary standpoint, young phacelia shoots in the spring can be eaten as greens, cattail fruits can be collected and eaten in fall, and the tubers can also be eaten at any point in the year. Sagebrush seeds can be harvested from July until September, and juniper berries could be collected in the late summer and fall and then dried for use later in the winter. Based on this evidence, Black Canyon was likely occupied in the winter, spring, and early summer months (Puseman and Cummings 2005). Today, Black Canyon is known as one of the first places in the park where snow-melt allows for good hiking, but is very hot during the summer. This site could reflect where early inhabitants of Yellowstone lived during the colder months, before moving back to higher elevation camps in the summer.

Not far downstream from Black Canyon, a site along the Yellowstone River was occupied from roughly 3,050 BC to AD 1,550 (Livers 2012). Located on a glacio-fluvial landscape, this site has also produced botanical remains including juniper, willow, and sagebrush. The lack of evidence of plant processing suggests these plants may have been used as a fuel source. Animal bones from this site were primarily from large ungulates, such as bison and elk. The low overall density of artifacts suggests the site was occupied only for short durations, most likely as a late-fall and winter seasonal encampment (Livers 2012).

Camas roasting pits are a common type of archeological feature in the southern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and across the Columbia Plateau. Similar earth ovens were identified near Fishing Bridge. These large pits are filled with stone, and used to roast large amounts of camas or other tubers for eating or grinding into flour. Camas ovens were dug either by families or large communal groups, and often families would return to favored gathering spots year after year (Nabokov and Loendorf 2002). Camas digging began in late summer or fall, so the presence of these features leads us to deduce that Fishing Bridge was occupied during autumn.

There is a wide diversity of archeological sites in Yellowstone, ranging from small lithic scatters found all over the park to large multi-occupation sites around Yellowstone Lake. Looking at the sites from a landscape perspective, the predominant pattern is one of people using higher elevation areas during the summer months when a multitude of resources are available and moving down into lower elevations to overwinter. This settlement pattern is referred to as a semi-sedentary lifestyle, where groups move from one established settlement to the next based on seasonal availability of food and other resources throughout the year.

Literature Cited

Johnson, A. 2002. Archaeology around Yellowstone Lake. Pages 80-88 in R.J. Anderson and D. Harmon, editors. Yellowstone Lake: hotbed of chaos or reservoir of resilience? Proceedings of the 6th Biennial Scientific Conference on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. October 8–10, 2001, Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone Center for Resources and The George Wright Society, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, and Hancock, Michigan, USA.

Livers, M. 2012. Stone circles in Yellowstone: archaeology of the Airport Rings Site. Yellowstone Science 20(2):5-11.

MacDonald, D.H. 2013. Early and Middle Holocene hunter-gatherers at the Fishing Bridge Point Site, Northern Yellowstone Lake. Pages 76-91 in D.H. MacDonald and E.S. Hale, editors. Yellowstone archaeology: Southern Yellowstone. University of Montana Department of Anthropology Contributions to Anthropology Volume 13(2). University of Montana Office of Printing and Graphics, Missoula, Montana, USA.

Nabokov, P., and L. Loendorf. 2002. American Indians and Yellowstone National Park: a documentary overview. YCR-CR-02-1, Yellowstone Center for Resources, Yellowstone National Park, Mammoth, Wyoming, USA.

Puseman, K., and L.S. Cummings. 2005. Macrofloral, pollen, starch, and protein residue analysis of samples from the Malin Creek Fishing Hole Site, 24YE353, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Technical Report 04-110. Paleo Research Institute, Golden, Colorado to Yellowstone National Park, Mammoth, Wyoming, USA.

Vivian, B.C., B.O.K. Reeves, and A. Johnson. 2008. Historical resources mitigative excavations at Site 24YE353, final report. Report submitted by Lifeways of Canada to Yellowstone National Park, Mammoth, Wyoming, USA.

Last updated: September 6, 2018